Code for America's CEO on this moment in civic tech

Amanda Renteria has led Code for America since 2020.

Amanda Renteria has led Code for America since 2020. Photo courtesy Code For America

Amanda Renteria talks about the recent customer experience executive order, the non-profit's work in federal and state government service delivery and what's next.

Civic tech nonprofit Code for America doubled in size during the pandemic, and the plan is to keep scaling, says CEO Amanda Renteria.

That idea that government benefits and services could be more accessible has been driving Code for America for years. Now it appears that the federal government is catching up: an executive order on customer service from the Biden administration has sharpened the focus on service delivery.

Code for America recently worked with the Treasury Department on a mobile-friendly, bilingual tool to enroll people into the Child Tax Credit program. The nonprofit is continuing work now to engage state and local benefit agencies to send tax benefits outreach to their beneficiaries, an effort the White House is supporting, Renteria says.

Among recent Code for America projects is one focused on integrating application processes for healthcare, food and other benefits. Code for America and Michigan, for example, collaborated to create one digital application that works across several programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Renteria talked with FCW about this moment in civic tech, Code for America's recent work and what's next.

How has Code for America changed over the years?

Where we started was at the hyper, hyper local level with technologists into government cities - working on housing vouchers, working on the front door of cities.

I'm not sure when we first started at Code for America, we [thought we] would see an executive order that actually encapsulated the need to do this at every level of government, across all agencies, in the way that it's so clearly laid out now. 

The beauty of that is not only bringing in these head agencies, but really bringing CIOs and CTOs into the fold, where you are not just fixing problems, but you're actually involved in the redesign of systems… Finally, government is looking at people, and the places and stages they are in life, and how to meet them where they are. 

For us this is a key aspect of it, particularly because one of our big fears with technology is you can automate bad stuff. And from the work that we see, if we want to reach black, brown, BIPOC communities, you actually have to understand how to do it intentionally, or it will go the opposite way.

What are your biggest priorities right now?

For the last few years, we've been going kind of crisis-by-crisis. That has opened up really incredible opportunities, right? Pandemic-EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer], where we were able to get resources out really quickly, working with ten different states… There are all these things that happened over the last two years, and now getting into a place where we're actually building a longer-term foundational relationship with states, where the idea isn't 'Let's just do this in a crisis.'

Our big focus now when I think about those different verticals is, how do we move from pilots-in-crisis action to actually laying that longer term partnership so that we can help bring governments to where they need to be for a new age.

So this seems like a unique moment in civic tech. How did you react to the executive order on customer experience? I'd imagine getting that top-down attention would be a big moment.

Some of those early conversations for us with the White House and with agencies is actually showing the work that was happening at the county and state level to say, "No, no, no you actually can do this."

Now that [the executive order] is out, you can actually see that we're raising the expectations of what people should expect in these different agencies. And that for me was really exciting because it meant we moved beyond telling people "This is possible guys, I promise" to "It is possible, now what are we doing to put the nuts and bolts of doing it together?"

That's where we are right now… and that has opened up a ton more just opportunity and discussion in a new way, where we don't have to convince people we should have good customer service.

I can't tell you enough and I know it doesn't feel like - what's the tangibility of that - it's huge, because it means someone picks up the phone and says let's work on this together. 

Do you ever run into challenges where people disagree with the fundamental premise of making government programs more accessible? The political context is such that it doesn't seem like that's a universally agreed upon goal. In Wisconsin, for example, a set of bills was discussed in the state legislature last month that would specifically prevent the state Department of Health Services from giving applicants pre-filled forms for applying to Medicaid programs, and require the department to review individual eligibility for Medicaid programs every six months, among other things.

Your question is real. It's actually what we face and what we see. From just who we are as Code for America, we would never help a state push people off. That isn't right or aligned with our values… So we have decided in some cases that if their system is what their system is and they would like us to kick people off, the answer is, we are not there.

Now there are plenty of systems that aren't efficient and even by making sure it's getting to the community or targeted in a way – some states can call that smoothing things out, making it more efficient, and I have yet to find anyone that works in government, whether you're from a red state or a blue state to say, "No, I don't want my systems to work better." So there is just so much work here to do - even the idea that you can text and that's an easier form of doing it, or that your website works a little bit better. 

I'll also say that when you talk to any case worker on the front lines, they're kind of just like, "Can you help me with this pile? Can you sort it out at least, so that I know this group is that and that group is this?" Every single system wants that. So when we get out of the politics of it, there is a ton of work there and commonality… There's more times that we bump into commonality. 

What's next?

We've got a big project right now with the White House that we're just talking through, so it's not fully formed, but an outreach project for Child Tax Credit. Knowing that this is the last year of it … and really making a concerted effort. Not only just like, let's have good Google ads, or ads or messaging, but what are ways that we can figure out how to link in systems to the Child Tax Credit.

It's again for the first time going, the White House saying, "We have a good customer service project, right, a customer service front door – how can we now get people to walk through it, and how can we use our state systems, all 50 states to do it."

I mean, I can't even believe we're having that conversation. Two years ago, I wouldn't have imagined that and that's the kind of conversation we're having right now.