11 Sep 2018

Bringing Government Up to Code

Code for America COO Minnie Ingersoll on how her organization is strengthening the social safety net


Dan Morrell: Minnie Ingersoll (MBA 2002) worked at Google for more than 11 years, and she would usually take the bus to get there. And every day, on her walk to the bus stop, she'd pass by a spray painted message on the sidewalk that read "Go home Googlers." It was a daily reminder, she says, that something was broken. That this great technological revolution just wasn't working for everyone.

Today, Ingersoll works as COO of Code for America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to improving civic tech and strengthening the foundations of our social safety net—making it easier, for example, for people to apply for food assistance or for probation officers to communicate with their parolees. On today's episode of Skydeck, Ingersoll talks with contributor Jenny Luna about how Code for America is working with communities across the country to better serve some of our most vulnerable populations.


Luna: You joined Code for America in June of 2017 and you talked openly about how current events and the upcoming birth of your third child had really pushed you in that direction. Can you talk more about your career change at that point and why you decided to join the nonprofit?

Ingersoll: There's a lot of different things all sort of converging at once. I heard Robert Reich speak. He was a former Secretary of Labor, and he said that if we don't fix these problems in our society right now, help people's basic needs, we're all going to be instead just building armor plates for our Teslas. We're going to be living in a society we don't want to live in.

At the same time, being a mother, it activated all of my motherly instincts and the notion of someone who's a mom and not able to feed their child is really heartbreaking. But when the reason that she is unable to feed her child is because the website is too hard to navigate, that's a problem we can do something about, and that's where I felt like that's something I understand, that's something I can help move the ball forward on, and a lot of just current events really are helping us all see that society is not working for a lot of people.

And the question I get a lot is, well, should I go be a product manager at Twitter and really learn some of the skills of the trade first and then go have the impacts that I want to have, and then go into fixing the problems? And maybe my answer would have been different 15, 20 years ago, but I think increasingly I believe that the answer is no. There is a groundswell of great people who are working to solve our fundamental problems, and delaying the I'll do something first, I'll make money first, I'll learn skills first and then I'll follow what I think is my passion, what I think I need to do, what I think society needs, I don't think is the right model.

I also think that the good news is there's more and more amazing people who learn from, who are really drawn to government. I think the analogy that Jen Pahlka who's our executive director here uses, is the house is on fire right now. That means we actually need to run towards it, not away from it.

Luna: And how does Code for America work? What are the fires that you're trying to put out, so to speak?

Ingersoll: Yeah, so we are fixing government starting with people who need it the most, and the way that we approach that is through the intersection of government and technology. The way we talk about it is saying we're showing what's possible. We're helping people to do it themselves, and then we're building a movement.

What that means is by showing what's possible, that's all the work that we're actually building ourselves, so we're running digital services that are user-centered, they're simple, they're easy to use, they're data driven, and we're scaling those. And we actually believe that by doing a lot of the work ourselves, it's not just as a way to show other people what's possible, but it's also a way that we learn what's really needed, where the pain points really are.

And then we take that work and we teach people how to do it themselves. So what we want to see is jurisdictions, counties, cities, states, setting up their own digital service teams. That's a big win for us, and we're always trying to encourage people to take jobs in government and have government hire technologists. And the final thing is to turn this into a movement, and to build a community around this.

Luna: When I first arrived to the office, I noticed this large poster board covered in Post-Its that had all these details about the user experience of food stamp recipient in California. It was really complicated. Can you walk me through what I was looking at?

Ingersoll: So at Code for America, we have three main focus areas: food, jobs, and justice. All of our focus areas are looking at vulnerable populations and helping people find a path out of poverty. And the initiative that you saw was GetCalFresh, which is one of our big food initiatives in California, to help people apply for food assistance. And it turns out that government digital services like applying for food assistance have really not made their way into the 21st century in terms of the technology that's there.

I think what you were looking at was some of the map of the user journey of how do people today not only apply for food assistance but actually continue their enrollment in food assistance, in food stamps. The process is much harder than it should be or needs to be, and some of that can actually be solved by designing a service with the user in mind as opposed to a government service that's been designed really without delving deeply into the user journey.

Luna: What was the CalFresh application process like when you guys first started working on it, and what is it like now?

Ingersoll: The California application process is a 45-minute application that doesn't work on mobile and doesn't save state. And what that means is if you get partway through the application and it times out, you have to start back at the beginning. So let's say that you're applying for food assistance and you don't just have a personal computer at home. That means you go to the library, you use a computer, and you start your application. The library computer times out after 30 minutes. That is an injustice, and it's not just about people getting food assistance, which is a fundamental human right, but it's also about what is their experience of government today. What is their experience of society? Are we thinking about them? Are we caring about them?

So you know, at the most basic level, what we've built is an application process that works on a mobile phone and takes eight minutes to complete, and it helps people stay enrolled by sending them a text message as opposed to sending a letter to their home in the wrong language. There is any number of things that are really broken about our current system.

Luna: Food assistance and other government services are a hot button issue in politics. How do you stay out of that realm and focus on the mission and the work that you're trying to do?

Ingersoll: Regardless of where you fall in the political spectrum in terms of these programs, how much funding should there be for people to get food assistance, or workforce development, help people get jobs, you can pretty universally agree that we shouldn't be wasting money on those efforts.

Luna: You've worked for nearly two decades in the tech sector. What have been some things that surprised you most about working so closely with governments?

Ingersoll: One of the things I heard is that government loves good crisis. When there's a real problem, that's when people are most eager to invite in the technologists and really engage with how do we do things better. What we'd like to do, though, is go from sort of being the firefighters to actually building the sprinkler systems, right? So having it all not just built ahead of time but having people be in this mindset, thinking about how services can be simple, accessible and easy to use.

Luna: What are some similarities and differences between local government and between the tech sector that we can really leverage to learn more about government services, and how to provide them more efficiently?

Ingersoll: A lot of times what we see in cities and counties is there isn't as much job movement as there is, say, in the tech space. I might have worked at Google for two years and then Dropbox for two years and Facebook for a couple years, and you know, there's a lot of cross-pollination of what are the best practices in writing your OKRs and measuring your KPIs.

Whereas it's not likely that someone moved from the city manager at Mountain View is now the city manager in Oakland. There's just a little less of that cross-pollination and people just moving jobs every two years, which may be a good thing or a bad thing. So our model is really focused on building things ourselves, helping people adopt those principles and practices, and then building a movement around it.

One challenge is it's a whole ecosystem of talent in government where the people in government are fantastic, but the tech sector and the government sector don't have all that much overlap. And so what we've seen is one of the keys to fixing the system is having technologists want to work in government and having government have the ability to hire those technologists, and it becomes either a virtuous cycle or an unvirtuous cycle where once you have good people from the tech ecosystem in government, they know how to write the right job descriptions, they know how to attract other talent. It can be a really, a virtuous cycle when done well.

So I think that's one of the big challenges that we're seeing now, and I think a lot of our work at Code for America is not just to build better digital services, but to actually change that ecosystem, and help show what's possible and inspire people to do things like create digital services teams, hiring the technologists into government so it's not just like the IT department that is responsible for making sure the WiFi works or the website is up, but it's actually thinking about user-centered data-driven design that has a lot of the principles that we really take for granted in the for-profit world, just bringing that into government and having government clamoring for that too.

Luna: And what are some of these easier wins that you've come across so far given your background in technology?

Ingersoll: There's some really easy ways of applying some of the things that I've seen before, so we could talk about how to do growth marketing here, for instance. And growth marketing is a reasonably well developed expertise, I think, at a lot of places and just setting up your AdWords campaigns, your Facebook campaigns. And it turns out that even if you're focused on vulnerable populations, you can reach a lot of people through reasonably traditional, not extremely cutting edge means.

One of the things we talk about a little bit at Code for America, sometimes people ask us, you know, what are you doing at the forefront of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the answer is not a whole lot. We're actually just taking some of the basic tools and techniques that are already well understood, and just applying them to government digital services.

Luna: So what's next for Code for America, both in terms of scaling the nonprofit and looking at expanding to other government services?

Ingersoll: Right now, we are focused on food, jobs, and justice, which is the criminal justice system. I think that we will continue to focus on vulnerable populations. One of the reasons that I joined Code for America and one of the big pulls that we have is how do we 30x the impact of our work, without necessarily 30x-ing our budget? The problems are not going to be solved by our small team, so how do we really leverage the work we're doing to 10, 30, 50x the impact that we're having today, because these problems need to get solved for our society to work.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2002, Section B

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