Flickr/Paul Sableman

"We started getting these letters."

It's a cliché of course, but no doubt some of the worst experiences with government bureaucracy really do start and end at the DMV. There are just so many ways to go wrong there: You get in the wrong line. You bring the wrong paperwork. Your birth certificate is photocopied when it must be the original. You need a utility bill, but you don't have one yet, because who has a utility bill within 10 days of moving to a new address? And what's this, you don't know the exact odometer reading on your car?

But none of this is anything compared to what it's like to sign up for food stamps.

Take CalFresh, California's implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Last year, a team of Code for America fellows working with the San Francisco Human Services Agency were enlisted to try to improve the program's retention, and the experience of navigating it. To understand how CalFresh interacts with users, one Code for America fellow, Rebecca Ackerman, signed up for the benefit (after committing not to actually use any of the money).

"We started seeing what it was like to be a client," says Jacob Solomon, another fellow on the team. "We started seeing what the nature of the communications was. We started getting these letters."

Some 20 letters, in fact, came over the next seven months, and Solomon has documented all of them in a maddening interactive timeline here. The letters are oddly hostile in tone. They're written with a strange mix of condescension and legalese. They inform Ackerman of additional paperwork she must file. They repeatedly tell her that her account has been deactivated. At other points, they explain to her with bewildering logic why her benefits have been altered. They say things like this:

That rambling excerpt comes from one letter.

"It became pretty clear that user needs are not a central priority," Solomon says.

Government tends not to think about the users of public programs in the same way that, say, Apple thinks about the users of its iPhones. This is a central weakness of CalFresh and the dozens of programs like it. How could no one in government have considered what it's like to be on the receiving end of that nonsensical letter?

After their fellowship ended, Solomon wrote a thoughtful manifesto last week on Medium that's since been making the rounds in civic-tech circles, rallying people around what Solomon identifies as a kind of disdain for people as users of public programs. As an antidote, he proposes designing services instead with actual people more squarely in mind, creating in government "an empathetic machine."

The Code for America team in San Francisco, which also included Andy Hull and Marc Hébert, had set out to build an ambitious solution for CalFresh. But the group wound up spending the fellowship constructing something relatively modest.

"What we decided to focus on was one very small but pretty bad moment in people's interaction with the system," Solomon says. In San Francisco, about 60,000 people are on food stamps. In any given month, amid all those confusing letters, about 2,000 of those users are discontinued from the program, for any number of reasons. Invariably, they find out while they're in the checkout line at the grocery store, with a week's worth of food already bagged in the cart and a line full of shoppers behind them.

"It’s a bad moment in so many ways," Solomon says. "It's a bad personal moment because you might not have enough cash to pay for groceries, so you're leaving empty-handed. It’s bad for the front-line social workers, because they get all these angry calls from people who don’t know what’s going on – they just know their card doesn’t work."

And it's a bad moment for the government agency because so many of these people must be re-enrolled, re-starting the process (and the letters) again.

To address that one moment, Code for America built a tool that automatically sends users a text message – with less menacing language – warning them that they may be dropped from the program before that actually happens. The text looks like this (in several languages):

CalFresh (Food Stamps): Your CalFresh benefits may stop at the end of this month. Questions? Call (415) 944-4301.

Even an idea this basic isn't easy to implement in a government context. Texting such sensitive information entails privacy concerns (in San Francisco, users must opt in). And many cell-phone plans still charge users to receive text messages, creating a dilemma for any government agency that would like to communicate with the poor this way.

Still, a simple, helpful text is the kind of interaction – relative to those indecipherable letters – that could alter how people experience government.

"The privacy and financial implications," Solomon says, "I think they are so, so much outweighed by the higher quality, more human communication."

Top image: Flickr user Paul Sableman.

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