1. Governance
May 26, 2022updated 31 Mar 2023 11:21am

Jen Tolentino and Zachary Markovits

To govern best, cut through the red tape

Historically, government programmes have not been known for their ease of use. And at the local level, when residents encounter countless structural barriers, we know economic disparities are exacerbated.

Those of us active in the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility Initiative, led by Results for America, get excited when a service does work effectively to create a difference in people’s lives – especially when it’s a programme that can be replicated in new cities and towns to support more people. Recent programmes in Lansing, Newark and New Orleans have left us with promising findings that we hope to scale in the effort to cut government red tape.

red tape
Government red tape: can it be unravelled in US cities for the better? (Photo by wildpixel/iStock)

A key theme in all three locations? Simplicity. If aid organisations and government agencies can make their client interactions less complex – using fewer multi-layered formats and removing multiple hoops to jump through – then assistance will reach more people more quickly and with less aggravation.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Some bureaucratic roadblocks aren’t readily apparent. Smart research and data can help uncover them, as happened in these cities.

New Orleans: A simple fix to a nettlesome problem

YouthForce NOLA, a non-profit collaboration that provides students with the skills and contacts to pursue high-wage careers, made it easier to access quality internships by streamlining a burdensome ‘government red tape’ application process.

Originally, applicants had to provide IDs, work permits, proof of residency, proof of guardianship, signed forms and more. The demands disproportionately burdened young people who identify as non-binary, who are English language learners, or who are experiencing homelessness.

The residency requirement proved especially problematic for students who live in transitional housing or have lost documents in hurricanes, floods or other disasters. Working with city officials and the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), YouthForce NOLA made a simple but transformational change: enrollment in a New Orleans public school would suffice as proof of residency.

After the switch, 90% of students proved residency through their schools, and all work permits were processed virtually. The changes dramatically increased retention. Between 2017 and 2020, only 63-76% of youth accepted into the programme stayed on for their internships. After streamlining the documentation procedures, retention skyrocketed to 96.7% last spring.

Lansing: A single point of contact for many financial services

Lansing offers an impressive array of financial empowerment services for its residents to help with government red tape. They include a children’s savings account opened at kindergarten; post-secondary tuition assistance; and ongoing financial counselling for adults. These programmes were strong, but they operated independently and unintegrated. That made them less intuitive for residents to navigate, causing people to lose out on these resources and leave money on the table.

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The Lansing partners addressed this problem by rebranding the partnership under a single, public-facing identity: BOLD Lansing. BOLD Lansing provides residents with a single email address and phone number, increasing the potential for referrals between programmes. Through a new governance structure also developed during the pilot, BOLD Lansing is poised to become a true “one-stop shop” for residents. They can start saving early, build strong savings habits, and make the most of their assets through financial counselling.

Two other BOLD Lansing partners also embraced collaboration and streamlining: Lansing Promise, which provides tuition assistance for qualified residents, and the city’s Financial Empowerment Center (FEC). Historically, FEC had few clients 23 or younger. The pilot programme changed that by having Lansing Promise, well-known to the city’s students, refer them to FEC for its services.

The pilot also showed the value of small incentives. A $10 Amazon gift card encouraged 191 Promise scholars to complete a financial mindsets and habits survey, providing valuable insights for their future financial counselling.

Newark: A user-friendly portal for affordable housing 

Newark, working with the WWC Economic Mobility Initiative, expanded access to affordable housing through several innovations:

  • Launching a landlord registration campaign to better enforce rent control and existing renter protections.
  • Planning to expand the city’s Office of Tenant Legal Services to provide legal representation for residents facing eviction.
  • Building an affordable-housing portal to help residents find and secure good housing. 

Newark officials used BIT’s EAST framework (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) to make sure the portal was easy to use, which is essential for success. Working with community-based organisations, they tested the portal with low-income residents and captured feedback. On the beta version of the portal, most users found a good affordable housing option within 15 minutes.

Where will government red tape end?

While bureaucracy can provide organisation for governments as they move towards a common goal, the government red tape that results isn’t harmless. It’s a barrier between public services and the public. It may seem ubiquitous, but it doesn’t have to be. Breaking down these barriers starts by making every touchpoint between a city and its residents as simple and intuitive as possible.

Simplicity, we’ve learned, is one of the most powerful tools a government can wield.

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