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How Digitization Can Make Government More Equitable

As experts recently discussed at Code for America’s FormFest 2023 event, the digitization of government forms and processes can create more equitable access to government services for constituents.

A light source illuminates a room through an open door with floating cyan symbols representing code or tech.
When government agencies digitize forms and processes, they can more equitably expand access to services, according to advocates in the space.

As experts discussed at an event — appropriately named FormFest 2023 — hosted by Code for America (CfA) and the Digital Service Network at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation last month, the customer experience is key.

Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria told Government Technology that digital forms make government more accessible because “they’re the front door” to many government services.

Not only can digitization lead to a better customer experience, as seen in cities like Santa Monica, Calif., but it can also help governments make services more inclusive, as seen in Boston. Another benefit of process digitization is money saved, as seen in Utah.

Renteria explained that when done well, digital forms enable government to speak the language of constituents — literally and culturally — which is particularly important in communities that have historically not felt seen or heard by government. And in doing so effectively, she underlined the need for comprehensive user research involving the folks that have gone through the experience of accessing these services digitally.

Redefining these long-held processes can be a challenging transformation for governments, but Renteria noted that creating agile digital forms and processes can evolve and be iterative to meet changing community needs.


Several years ago, the city of Seattle embarked on a mission to create more accessible benefits through an executive order, Affordable Seattle Program Manager Elise Kalstad explained. This started a process that ultimately led to the city’s implementation of a low-code/no-code platform to increase awareness of and participation in these programs.

Through research with residents and community organizations, the city found many constituents choose to navigate government services through trusted community-based organizations; as such, the city prioritized making it easy for social workers and caseworkers to apply on behalf of clients. In addition, the city brought them into the process, offering reimbursement for time in user testing in exchange for feedback.

The research also showed that residents didn’t want to repeatedly re-enter information for different programs with similar informational needs; this meant the form needed to be adaptable. The city received pro bono support from, enabling a pilot to find the minimum viable product to meet residents’ needs and an open source end product aimed to serve low-income resident benefits.

“Nobody should be getting rich off of benefits to the poor,” Kalstad said.

The impact for the city is tangible. Since the June 2021 launch of the pilot, the city has received 14,000 applications to city benefit programs using CiviForm, with 19 percent reusing their information to apply to two or more programs. The city has measured over 80 percent time savings with CiviForm, now taking less than 5 minutes to complete an application. Notably, specific programs like the Seattle Parks and Recreation Scholarship program and the Human Services Department Gold Card for Seniors program saw a 200 percent and 300 percent increase in applicants, respectively, when applications were made available with CiviForm.

“It's really clear who is applying to the program now, and we can — for the first time — track demographic information consistently across many city programs,” Kalstad said.

Miguel Jimenez, fiscal and policy analyst for the city, explained that the team is now working to get all of the programs using this platform, and that they’re about 35 to 40 percent there and making active progress. The programs that take priority are determined based on return on investment with regard to time savings and maximizing resident benefit.

“We see this as an expansive tool that can help our residents, as well as residents across the U.S.,” Jimenez noted.

Because the city is using agile product development, the team can pivot as community needs change. Kalstad predicts that the tool will look different a year from now as it continues to evolve.


The city of Syracuse’s vendor certification application was redesigned and made digital to balance equity and compliance in the procurement process. The city’s vision for procurement processes is that they can help create greater vendor diversity and more equitably distribute government resources.

As explained to Government Technology by the innovation designer Jordanna Coutinho, the city has run its Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) certification program since the 1990s but noticed an opportunity for improvement when data showed a drop in number of qualifying vendors. A grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies offered the city an opportunity to pursue this comprehensive change, not just to the certification but procurement practices as a whole.

“We definitely used that as an opportunity to kind of kick us into modernizing our processes and making sure that we were making things as accessible as possible to our vendors,” said Coutinho.

The paper-based application was a lengthy 18 pages long and posed a barrier for some. The city conducted vendor interviews and surveys, involving user testing and empathy mapping — a way to synthesize data from different perspectives in the decision-making process — before finally launching the new digitized process.

Mia Capone, a government innovations fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab Procurement and Economic Mobility Team, has been working with the city’s innovations team to overhaul procurement systems.

Capone underlined that equity is a major priority for Syracuse, and that this project involves a lot of work beyond the form change aspect to improve equitable contracting, including assessing processes and strategies led by the city’s equity compliance and social impact team.

"We're building in equity into the way that we work, from early stages through contract execution,” Capone said.

This involves an expanded directory of vendors, as well as the building of processes to ensure equity consideration and planning is a focus throughout the year in a strategic and systemic way.

The real-world impact of procurement is that which it has on the lives of people served by the city — from busing kids to school to filling in potholes. Working with diverse vendors stimulates a local economy and helps a city address historical and systemic injustice, Capone said.

“It’s the way most communities experience government on a day-to-day basis,” she added.

Sonoma County’s Workflow Automation

For Sonoma County, Calif., partnerships with SimpliGov for electronic forms and Adobe for electronic signatures provided the county with the foundation to build upon for expanding digital access to services.

Carolyn Staats, director of innovation for the Sonoma County IT Department, said the county turned to SimpliGov, through a bundled renewal of an agreement with Adobe.

One early piece of digitization happened through the ACCESS Initiative, which dates back to 2017, in which the county created electronic forms to capture consent from the county’s population of people without housing to provide them access to critical services for mental health, substance use and housing.

The county has measured the success of digitization by mapping out workflows, the time they take and potential roadblocks and comparing those things before and after digitization. Staats also noted that once a process has been digitized, the data is more easily accessible to the county, which is important in understanding potential areas of improvement from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective.

“[With] the digital process, if you factor in the right pieces, you can actually get a lot of beneficial information for your organization, as well as your — not just leadership — but the employees themselves,” Staats said. “You can improve the process for everyone — and the outcomes.”

By bringing in the right team of people to the digitization process, the processes themselves can also be re-engineered for improvement to eliminate certain hurdles, Staats added.

Now, the county is working to support transitional-age youth through a mobile-responsive web app being developed with IBM. A key goal is to provide this population with their primary need: a digital document repository. This population experiences changes in housing and a lack of security that causes individuals to lose key documents like drivers’ licenses. The app will first be rolled out to a cohort of about 250 youth, slated for Q1 of 2024, before being made available to anyone in this population, ultimately helping to make it easier for them to access other services they need.

A Caveat to Digitization

As government agencies shift processes and forms online, there is an opportunity to expand access to people who may not otherwise have it, whether because of the complexity of the process or time required to complete it. However, there remains a divide for the population of people throughout the country that either do not have access to Internet, Internet-enabled devices or the skills to use them.

As such, Renteria underlined that agencies need to consider this population when making processes simpler by bringing them online. Although she underlined her belief that Internet today is a necessary utility akin to electricity, the goal is to make processes easier for constituents, and that involves building systems that allow for multiple "front doors" to welcome people into these processes.

“I think we have to remember that we always need a government to walk into,” Renteria stated.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.