Beeck Center Launches Research Project on Federal Social Safety Net Benefits

New Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Action-Oriented Stakeholder Recommendations

February 21, 2020

Every day, millions of Americans apply for public benefits, the critical funds they need to pay for housing, food, or transportation. But the process of completing applications and obtaining approval is complex and time consuming — it’s often paper-based and can require in-person filings with long lines. As a result, many people abandon applications or don’t bother at all and don’t get benefits they’re eligible to receive. 

New solutions leveraging data and technology have emerged in recent years to make it easier for people to apply for and enroll in these safety net benefits. To understand these existing tools as well as opportunities where new products and services can be developed, Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch an action-oriented research project to detail data and technology-enabled solutions that can close the gap to give more people better access to priority federal public benefits. 

This new project will result in recommendations for a variety of stakeholders to increase enrollment of federal safety net benefits by leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation. It is part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC). 

The field of technology-enabled solutions that eligible individuals can use to efficiently navigate services available to them as they pursue greater economic security is small but growing. Organizations such as Code for America and the Benefits Data Trust are conducting research and developing products that simplify the process for both the applicant and the government workers processing applications. For example, Code for America’s GetCalFresh reduced the application time for Californians to apply for nutrition assistance from 45 minutes down to eight, helping close the gap of the 2 million Californians who are eligible for these benefits but not receiving them.  

Despite these successes, it is still early in the development and application of data and technology-enabled solutions in the public benefits space. This research project will: 

  • Map the early actors in this space to understand their work 
  • Identify gaps where activity is not yet taking place
  • Determine where to prioritize further resources and action 

The project joins the portfolio of the DSC which launched in April 2019 in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation. The DSC’s mission is to cultivate the network of people working on data, design, technology, and innovation in governments, and activate them to co-create and scale solutions to help advance their work, while documenting it so others can use it as well. The DSC’s existing portfolio of projects range from developing a playbook to help states modernize their foster care licensing processes to bringing together data ethicists to develop a guide for responsibly sharing data between the public and private sectors for better social outcomes. 

This portfolio of work is led by Cori Zarek, the Director of the DSC, with support from the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows and students. “There’s a range of critical public benefits from healthcare to nutrition assistance to transportation support that can be improved for all residents by leveraging data and technology to improve access and enrollment,” Zarek said. “Great work is already happening out there, and by bringing ecosystem players together, we hope to scale their efforts and ultimately help more people access the services they need to thrive.” 

Two research fellows have joined the DSC to lead the public benefits project: 

Chad Smith researches the operational, technological, and ethical practices of integrating continuous client data into programs offered by social services departments and providers. He is currently the founder of YourSeat, a data platform for collecting, measuring and reporting behavior change in Family First Prevention Services Act programs. Prior to YourSeat, Chad led human-centered design engagements for Accenture’s public, healthcare, telecommunication, and financial services clients undergoing internal system modernization efforts. Chad currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He earned a B.A in Political Science from Hampton University and regularly volunteers at Digital Pioneers Academy. 

Sara Soka is an advocate for human-centered policy, implementation, and service design. Sara brings a background in applied qualitative research and network leadership spanning public health issues, plus substantial experience in community engagement and strategic communication. She managed Berkeley, California’s successful soda tax campaign, the first to pass in the U.S., with resident-led policymaking, locally resonant messaging, and participatory budgeting as guiding principles. As a consultant and a Vice President of Policy for a national public health nonprofit, she monitored iterations of this policy and its implementation, the related impacts, and implications for equity. Recently, she gained experience in UX research, and has consulted as a policy analyst for Code for America.