San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s army of publicly funded communications staffers were busy last Thursday, issuing not one but two press releases. And of course, along with the PR emails was the work of promoting the announcements around the Web through social networks — posting tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos.
Having had the foresight to join a profession where the latest and greatest business model being touted by the business elite is not to pay people for their work, I found myself navigating the food assistance program, which in San Francisco is run by the Human Services Agency.
And certainly I’m not alone — with the unemployment rate in California peaking to its highest level in recent memory, plenty of other college educated types with long work histories who might have thought themselves part of the middle class are finding themselves without work, or without enough work to cover basic expenses. For me, “food stamps” were a way to divert cash I might have spent at the grocery store to my landlord or the Internet and phone service bills I needed to keep up in order to work.
The promise of benefitsSF is not just to make it easier to access food assistance, but other services as well, including Medi-Cal; eligibility assessments and applications for WIC, school lunches, and the earned income and working families tax credits are in the works; and the site will also collect your information and forward it to the administrators for the Healthy San Francisco medical benefits program.
Does it make it easier? That depends. Under the old system, you could apply online, though you had to mail in your application and then make an appointment with a case worker to meet for an interview at the Human Services Agency office on Mission Street. All of which was easy enough to figure out on the existing SFgov.org site in five languages.
But that site has been redesigned, actually making the HSA much harder to find — photos of Newsom, banner ads for the “Social Media Center” (where you can find every Newsom-related announcement outlet imaginable) and 311 integration with Twitter are prominent. (Chief Deputy Communications Director Joe Arellano did not respond to an emailed request to answer questions about the new site.)
Mouse over the small “city services” menu, however, and nothing relating to food assistance appears. It took my at least three clicks to actually get to the HSA page. It actually would have been faster to get the link by going straight to the mayor’s press release clearinghouse. And once there, the old system is no longer available — applications have to go through benefitsSF. Go directly to SFHSA.org (where links from SFGov to the HSA redirect), and it will take you a couple of clicks to get to the new site in order to apply.
So the new redesign of the site for city government makes finding politicians and their pronouncements easy. No wonder there was a perceived need to create an entirely new site to make finding services easier. Certainly there was no public outcry for, or input into, the design and implementation of benefitsSF. Making it pretty clear who the Department of Technology is working for.
But hey, now you can conduct the required interview via Web cam, or scan the necessary application and documents instead of mailing them! In the press release, Newsom declares “With the technology that exists today, there is no reason that people should still have to dedicate an entire day and suffer through long line just to access government services.” In the technology that existed a few months ago when I applied, I neither had to dedicate an entire day nor wait in line, either.
To be honest, I really wanted to be entirely positive about the site. After all, anything that makes it easier for people to get the help they need is a good thing. But what rankles more than the questionable implementation is the political opportunism and disingenuousness of how the announcement was timed and framed.
For instance, the press release was titled “Mayor Newsom Launches New Online Resource for San Franciscans in Need of Medi-Cal and Food Stamps.” When in fact, the HSA got $1 million from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that was way back in 2006, yet anyone with Web development experience will take one look at the site and wonder what about it took three years.
Further down, the emailed release (which was issued Thursday, July 2nd) reads:
Since June 3rd, over 63 percent of applications have been done via webcam or over the phone (essentially avoiding having to come into the HSA Food Stamp Office).
Where exactly did the mayor’s office get that 63 percent number for a program that had literally just launched that day?
So it came as no surprise when the release announced that San Francisco is working with the State Department of Social Services to replicate the program, funded by the feds and built by a county agency but which the mayor is taking credit for, across the state — or at least across a liberal northern and coastal swath of the state that extends neatly along the geographic borders of Newsom’s likely support base in a statewide election.
Credit where credit is, actually, due: The mayor and his coterie have staged another masterpiece of using public programs and money to promote their ambitious political theater. If you want to see the show their producing make an appearance Sacramento, then by all means, buy your ticket by voting for Newsom in next year’s primary.
Just don’t be surprised when the state decisions regarding the merits of new and existing programs use the algebra of presidential ambitions instead of public service.
Jackson West is a writer who recommends that those who qualify do whatever you must in order to get food stamps — after all, you can totes spend it at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on beef hearts and green garlic and such.