This article first appeared on LinkedIn. It was edited lightly for style and brevity.
The GetCalFresh team at Code for America gave me this print (see accompanying photo) a few years ago as a gift. Receiving it from that incredibly special team was one of the highlights of my career, and I treasure it.
But ... it’s taken on new significance. As of last week, GetCalFresh, a modern digital service that helps eligible Californians get on and stay on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is now serving every county in the state. The bear really is hugging the whole state now.
Not only that, but faced with the enormous task of helping people on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) who had previously been ineligible apply for CalFresh (California's name for SNAP,) the state's SNAP director asked our team to take the lead. Between serving the whole state and helping SSI recipients, the number of people using the service has risen dramatically. In the whole first year of the project, we helped about 3,500 applicants. ... On Monday, the team assisted with almost 6,000 applications — in just one day. We will soon hit 1 million people helped.
What an accomplishment. And it's not just the milestone that makes me proud; it's how they got there, so beautifully illustrating Code for America’s core values and operating principles. Everything they’ve done has begun and ended in empathy, for users of the service and for the public servants they work with. They’ve worked "with, not for," the people they’ve served. They’ve been impatient with the system, but always respectful of the people. They’ve made the system better with statistically sound, ground-truthed data about user behavior and outcomes. They’ve solved real problems, not imagined ones. They’ve shaped the landscape around them by showing what’s possible when you make services so good that they build trust and faith in government, and now vendors, advocates and government leaders have to up their game to meet rising expectations. When Fast Company wrote about this and another Code for America project last week, the headline was Yes, the government is capable of great design — here's how.
Most of all, it’s important to remember where this all began. When Jake Solomon, Dave Guarino, and Alan Williams started this project, it wasn’t because someone else had identified the problems GetCalFresh addresses, or had proposed solutions. No one in government or the advocacy world had asked for this; there was no RFP for this, no idea that a system like this could or should exist. Jake, Dave and Alan didn’t wait to be asked, and they didn’t ask for permission; but ... brilliantly, they found a way that over time transitioned from rogue to legit, and is now just normal. As we say at CfA: “No one is coming. It is up to us.” Though really, when you get something going, many do come, including courageous and creative partners in government.
PS: We're looking for a new program director for GetCalFresh now!