Code for America’s Efrem Bycer on transforming government through technology
Code for America (CfA) is a national nonprofit that organizes a network of people who build technology to further local governments’ priorities of creating healthy, prosperous, and safe communities — by delivering services “better using the tools and practices of the digital age.”
“Government should be simple, effective, and easy to use — we stand to improve a lot of peoples’ lives,” Bycer said. “But ultimately, if you want it to work, it requires a system that meets their needs, not one in the abstract.”
Bycer believes combining government with technology and software can create opportunities to put people first: “We need incorporate their feedback, to design for the user and get better results.”
Projects at CfA include “GetCalFresh,” an app which makes it easier for people to apply for food assistance in the state; “Clear My Record,” a program which gives those with low-level criminal records “a second chance to get jobs and housing by clearing past convictions”; and “ClientComm,”a program for case managers to keep individuals struggling to stay out of jail due to missing court appearances compliant, by checking in with them often.
CfA is also working on creating a job-seeking tool, “Posting Pro,” which helps to make job searches and descriptions more effective and inclusive: “We’re hoping to inspire people to go out and get a job — especially people who are discouraged workers, or those with criminal records,” who may be more discouraged to apply.
According to data from the Macarthur Foundation’s Civic Tech Data Collective, 8,000 people annually apply for only 3,000 openings with the Boston city government, resulting in the loss of huge amounts of staff time in a highly manual project; to counter this inefficiency, Bycer says, the first phase is using data to build an algorithm better matching individuals to opportunities. The second is building an employer-seeker interface that is user- and mobile-friendly.
Since 2011, CfA has worked with over 100 local governments and thousands of tech professionals; currently, they’re working to help government make the most of collected tax dollars.
“Actual people in government are really eager to help, and want to integrate users and data into programs,” said Bycer, addressing the issue of bureaucracy and red tape in government today. “Everyone is eager to reduce friction and increase innovation — but sometimes people can be really stuck on process.”
At CfA, Bycer works to promote inclusive economic growth by streamlining the ways in which government and business interact and by bridging the skills gap.
He sees the ecosystem as being “what government can provide, what business will engage in, and nonprofits fill the void.”
By encouraging cross-sector collaboration — bringing together knowledge bases that are often not in the same room — he believes each issue can create a “unique story.”