Let’s Chat: U.S. Digital Response

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U.S. Digital Response is a nonprofit bringing volunteers from across digital professions into their (and other) local and state governments to assist with new technology development and implementation.

CivStart asked Rebecca Heywood, USDR’s Governments Team Lead about their success so far and their plans for the future.

CS: USDR has done tremendous work in the past year. Will you share an example of a successful USDR project or program area from 2021?

USDR: We know 2021 was a critical year for our communities, as well as U.S. Digital Response. We established our executive team, expanded our services, marked our first year milestones, and continued to meet a surge in demand for our assistance.

Looking at just numbers, USDR’s projects, done in deep partnership with over 230 governments and organizations, have impacted over 42 million people in 37 U.S. states and territories through more than 300 projects. That’s 1 project for every 2 days of USDR’s existence. You can read more in our 2021 In Review.

One incredible project we worked on together with the dedicated team at the City of St. Louis Homeless Services Department, a unique partnership that also involved several fellows from the Google.org Fellowship Program. The City of St. Louis Homeless Services Department had received additional funding to expand their services to homeless families in need, but the increased caseload meant their staff was stretched thin due to a very manual tracking and administrative process. We worked together to streamline their workflows and tracking, which has helped the program amplify their work from 100 families on average to over 700 households. The team also reported that they are saving nearly 30 hours per week by automating portions of their process compared to their prior manual process. We’re so excited to see the work the team is able to do to serve vulnerable families in St. Louis.

We also grew our work in the area of federal grants in 2021, focusing on making it easier for cities and states to identify grants they would like to apply for and report on CARES and ARPA funding back to the Treasury Department. We have heard from our partners that streamlining this process has saved them hundreds of hours.

CS: If I’m a city leader with a technology need, what are some areas where USDR could provide support?

USDR: We work with governments across a wide range of emergent problems, and are always happy to workshop with teams to figure out how we may be able to help you address a critical need. That being said, there are several common areas that we’ve seen cities need support in:

  • Use data to inform critical decisions. We can help improve the quality of incoming data, design new data schema or infrastructure to make it easier to use and help set up ways to analyze datasets to make critical decisions.
  • Streamline workflows to more quickly and efficiently be able to manage caseloads while minimizing manual work by staff
  • Understand the audiences you need to reach through your online services, what they need, and how to modify your website to deliver on those needs
  • Conduct research with your users to learn about their stories and deliver findings that will help you shape your services to meet their needs
  • And more!

We also have several key program areas including elections management, federal grants management, unemployment insurance, broadband, digital services and rapid response.

USDR’s projects have seen the most success when our partners remained flexible with their resources, responded quickly and used data to scale what was working, and shared lessons learned so that others could scale the most effective ideas. We encourage our partners to be rigorous with their constituents’ needs and approach this new age of digital service with a sense of urgent curiosity.

Get started here.

CS: What background and expertise do volunteers have that can complement government partners?

USDR: We have over 7,000 volunteers that have raised their hands to help government partners. They come from across the tech sector and public service coming from disciplines including:

  • User experience design
  • User research
  • Software engineering
  • Product management
  • Content strategy and design
  • Recruiting
  • Translation

We vet all of our volunteers through a rigorous internal process before placing them on projects, and each project team is tailored to the specific needs of the partner. Many of our volunteers are mid- and senior-level technology experts who are passionate about giving back.

CS: What is the process of engaging with USDR? How quickly could a government partner start project work?

USDR: We work at the speed of need and always follow the lead of our partners. If you are in crisis and need support immediately, we can get on the phone, triage what you need and get a project team together within days. If you are looking to workshop some approaches to a long-standing challenge, we are happy to slow down and make sure that you feel comfortable before proceeding. Typically our engagements last 4–12 weeks, depending on the need.

To get started, you can fill out our intake form. A member of our intake team, a mix of staff and volunteers, will reach out within 48 hours to schedule a time to get on a call to talk through the challenge you are facing. From there we will jointly decide how to proceed. For every engagement, we go through a scoping process to make sure we are all on the same page before identifying the appropriate volunteers and kicking off an engagement. All of our work is fast, free, and non-conflicted.

CS: What has USDR learned from partnering with government partners across the last two years? What has worked well, and what has been less than optimal?

USDR: As everyone working in public service and civic tech has seen, the last two years have been a whirlwind. There have been several monumental events that have shaped the needs and approaches of our partners in the public and nonprofit sectors, including widespread vaccine availability and the passing of CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Compared to early days of COVID-19 response and recovery, we have seen our partners taking a more measured approach to making decisions about public needs and how to spend public money. We know that there are still people in crisis everywhere, and there is an opportunity to meet their needs urgently as well as to build more resilient public systems. While the passing of legislation like ARPA has delivered more funds than many constituencies have seen in decades, we are working to ensure that we build a more equitable, accessible future while the resources are available.

We are always learning about how to follow the needs of the cities, counties, states and other partners we work with. With every project we do, we are thinking about how the lessons we learn may benefit others facing similar challenges, while also recognizing that local laws and regulations mean that there will be differences in what success may look like. We have seen this reusability with our poll worker management tool, where these easy-to-use digital tools for election officials to manage poll workers helped counties like Harris County, Texas to process over 7,000 applications and distribute workers to over 700 polling locations, an effort that won a 2020 Clearinghouse Award from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Local elections regulations mean that our tools need to be tweaked to meet their needs, and we have a standing team available to help make those tweaks and be able to set folks up with the tool typically in under two weeks.

We have also seen changes in our internal team make-up. We continue to be volunteer-powered, and our incredible volunteers together with our funders mean our services continue to be free-of-charge. We’re also building our internal team so we can continue to strengthen our offerings.. Interested in joining? Check out our positions and help support our volunteers and partners.

Low and no-code tools have been a cornerstone of much of USDR’s work, and we have been internalizing learnings about when they are a great fit and when partners need different types of solutions. You can read more about what we have learned in our four part series by our CTO, Alex Allain (1, 2, 3, 4).

CS: We at CivStart are excited to see all the great work that USDR accomplished when there was such a need. What does 2022+ look like? Where do you go from here?

USDR: We’re excited to look forward to what’s next at USDR. We have already seen big announcements: so far this year, we launched our elections program, scaled up our economic stability program, and hired a program lead for our digital service program to tailor our support for digital service teams around the country. New tools are also on the horizon as we work together with our partners to launch an ARPA reporting tool later this year to help streamline reporting across jurisdictions. Our team is consistently offering new resources for grants reporting; check out our blog to stay up to date.

In 2022 and beyond, we see ourselves continuing to support where needed on critical needs as they arise, as well as partnering with governments to build resilience to meet critical needs into the future. We are building support not just for one-off projects, but also establishing networks and resources for our partners across the country to meet and learn from each other. We learn so much from our partners every day, and want to make sure that folks working for the public good across the country feel connected. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter where we share guidebooks, case studies, and other resources from across the public technology sector.

As we continue to come out of COVID-19, we are also seeing the need to meet our partners where they are at which now also means at in-person conferences and events. As an organization founded in an all-remote era, this is new for us, but you will begin to see our staff both virtually and in-person at events such as the Code for America summit. We look forward to being able to meet our partners and colleagues from other organizations in-person in the coming months.

If you are a government partner looking for support, you can reach out to USDR here. If you are a technologist or public servant looking for ways to use your skills on high-impact, high-urgency projects, join the USDR volunteer community and see their open staff positions.




CivStart believes solving society’s biggest problems starts at the local level.

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CivStart believes solving society’s biggest problems starts at the local level.

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