Members of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Technology Coordinating Coalition met in person for the first time on June 13 as part of the Digital Benefits Conference (BenCon), the first-annual convening of the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.
The Coalition, which includes legal aid advocates, technologists, industry representatives, and unions, has been meeting virtually on a bi-weekly basis for more than two years to discuss opportunities to improve the technology for UI delivery.
A focus of the Coalition since its inception has been the administration of the funds provided to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) through a one-time appropriation in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) of $2 billion to improve timeliness, increase equity, and prevent fraud in the UI system. While approximately $1 billion of that appropriation was rescinded in June 2023 by the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA), DOL has administered a variety of grant programs to help state agencies find technology solutions to discrete problems faced by those systems.
The day started and ended with sessions designed to set the stage and chart a course for the Coalition’s next year. The Coalition also held a series of panel discussions with 17 experts covering modernization efforts at the state and federal level; developments in technology, identity proofing, and tools; and perspectives from state merit staff working on UI in labor agencies in Colorado and Washington. We were also joined by representatives from New Jersey’s Department of Labor and the DOL’s Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization (OUIM). The Coalition spent the day looking at what has changed over the last few years and highlighting resources, many developed by the DOL, that could help the 53 state-level UI systems improve in the next year. What we learned will help the Coalition chart a course to support beneficiary-centered change.
- A one-size-fits-all approach at the federal level to UI technology modernization will not work. With the $2 billion federal appropriation to modernize UI, experts anticipated a solution in the form of a series of technology modules that would work across the 53 UI systems. According to the panelists, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work due to states’ varying needs and the nature of the federal-state partnership, which prevents the DOL from operating some aspects of the UI program on behalf of states. Additionally, effective modernization at a national scale requires supporting legislative and policy changes and long-term funding. Because there are too many variables with how the states and territories administer UI, the DOL has to play a role in helping state labor agencies succeed based on their individual circumstances. DOL intends to accomplish this by setting overall standards and supporting administrative funding to boost UI technology development at the state level, including focusing on modular software development. Advocates can also play a role in federal policymaking by sharing success stories from the state level that can be replicated in other states.
- UI modernization projects need to focus on equity, should implement user testing, and require strong leadership at the state labor agency. Testing and iterating new technology with the experience of the claimant as the metric for success is critical to ensuring legitimate claimants are not denied benefits. Advocates and technologists working at the state level explained that many of the technology problems they encounter could be addressed by allowing claimants to participate in testing systems before they are released. The advocates found problems around forms that are not mobile-friendly or designed in accordance with accessibility standards. Additionally, they shared that even in states that have more modernized UI forms, poor translations persist for claimants in languages other than English. Technologists at the sessions highlighted the work they have done in small programs with specific states to improve language access and encourage user testing as part of an Agile approach to developing UI tech. A representative from a state labor agency also emphasized that strong leadership allows a paradigm shift in the agency’s approach. A strong leader can maintain open lines of communication with the legislature, executive, workers, claimant advocates, and vendors.
- Creating feedback loops among technologists, users, advocates, and agencies can improve UI tech-modernization efforts. Coalition members who are building technology solutions observed that building feedback loops where users and managers provided continuous input to refine the system improved outcomes for beneficiaries and agencies. Often in the procurement of large government technology projects, significant requirements are imposed at the outset and most forms of testing are relegated to the end of the process when change is difficult or impossible. As Jennifer Pahlka puts it in her book Recoding America, government technology is too often “policy vomit,” where every requirement in a law or regulation is directly written into the technology product, making it nearly impossible for an ordinary user to navigate the system. Recognizing these challenges, the technologists who have worked with the Coalition have adopted an Agile approach with the goal of “satisfy[ing] the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” To implement this, the customer is the claimant interfacing with the UI system directly. These technologists have put the claimant’s experience at the center of their development process, made sure to test their solutions with that user, and developed the product based on feedback and observations.
- A unionized workforce in state labor agencies makes a difference. Three frontline workers in both Colorado and Washington shared the challenges they faced processing claims during the pandemic. In their experience, increased outsourcing of UI claims created additional administrative challenges, as outsourced employees were not trained on the complexities of UI benefits, often resulting in incorrect information to claimants. Additionally, the outsourced employees had a higher turnover rate than unionized staff. Combined, these factors resulted in more work for merit staff employees and caused further delays in processing claims. The workers in Colorado are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local Colorado WINS and, in Washington, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 28. The workers noted management should create more opportunities to listen to frontline employees and learn from them on how the technology can be improved in UI, and also recommended a more customer-centered approach to improve their lives and the lives of claimants.
- It has been a game changer for Coalition members to work together and connect with people who share an interest in using technology to improve UI benefit delivery. Several legal aid advocates shared that the Coalition has provided access to other advocates facing similar problems, as well as offered connections to technical experts who have solutions to the systemic problems they face. One advocate expressed how the Coalition has allowed them to learn the language of technology so they can operate on the same level when meeting with the state labor department on UI technology related issues. Coalition members expressed that the community created has filled a gap in the civic technology space.
Over the next year, the Coalition will continue to learn more about state labor agencies’ procurement and implementation processes for building UI technology in order to drive a claimant- and worker-centered approach.
Additionally, the Coalition is in a feedback loop with OUIM at DOL, which supports its efforts to assist state agencies. The Coalition will look for ways to increase the reach and impact of OUIM’s work and help the office learn from the communities directly impacted by the UI system.
Finally, community building among legal aid advocates, technologists, industry representatives, and unions is among the core work of the Coalition, conducted through our bi-weekly meetings. The Coalition will continue to expand its membership among advocates, experts, worker representatives, and technologists. Please reach out to the authors if you are interested in learning more about how you can participate in the work of the Coalition.