The United States has long needed to make accessing its social safety net benefits less burdensome, and 2021 brought mandates, momentum, and resources necessary to take on that challenge.
After demand for economic assistance surged in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic and benefit programs went through unprecedented stress tests, the new presidential administration bookended 2021 with two federal executive orders, commonly referred to as the Equity Executive Order and Customer Experience Executive Order, to improve how government delivers benefits and services with “…particular [attention paid to] those who have been underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” These executive orders were paired with historic levels of funding in the American Rescue Plan Act for state, territorial, tribal, and local governments, part of which can be used to improve the efficacy of their economic relief programs and modernize access to the SNAP and WIC programs, among others. Media coverage, which put the issues with benefit delivery center stage for the American public in 2020, now published mainstream articles that explored the root causes of challenges to benefit access and delivery (such as Annie Lowry’s “The Time Tax” quoting our Georgetown colleagues Pam Herd and Donald Moynihan’s work documenting “administrative burdens”).
With this sea change, it’s an apt time for government agencies to review recent, successful improvements to benefits access and delivery that their peers have implemented and consider taking similar steps. The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University has thoroughly researched these improvements to produce a series of guides that carefully detail the types of changes that agencies have put in place recently—sometimes with the assistance of outside organizations—that rely on modern, flexible technology, data analysis and data sharing, and human-centered service design.
The guides include:
- A set of case studies showing how groups in Michigan, New York City, and San José provide better information about benefit programs using plain language, multilingual translation, co-creation and testing with residents, and technology tools. Accessible Benefits Information: Reducing Administrative Burden and Improving Equitable Access through Clear Communication about Safety Net Benefits
- Approaches that government agencies can take to redesign their benefits applications, forms, and correspondence so that they’re easier to understand and use. Preparing for Human-Centered Redesign (produced in collaboration with Civilla)
- A how-to guide to begin texting SNAP (or other benefits) recipients when it’s time to recertify. Using Text Message Outreach to Reduce SNAP Churn (produced in collaboration with Benefits Data Trust)
- A playbook that reviews the many ways that state agencies and partner organizations are integrating benefits. Integrating Social Safety Net Benefits: Options for State and County Agencies Informed by Recent Integration Successes
- An exploration of how coded eligibility rules, provided by the federal government as a starting point for implementing agencies, could offer greater efficiency and equity in benefit delivery. Benefit Eligibility Rules: Reducing the Gap Between Policy and Service Delivery for the Safety Net
The Beeck Center began researching the design, data, and technology-enabled social safety net in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in the United States. We conducted a landscape analysis and wrote a report in installments that laid out many of the advances and recommendations that leaders in public interest technology and the social safety net made prior to the outbreak. The report, Technology, Data, and Design-Enabled Approaches for a More Responsive, Effective Social Safety Net, also included real-time reports about struggles with benefit delivery that people experienced during the pandemic, as well as some of the solutions that government agencies and supporting organizations constructed under crisis.
An important aspect of that early work was also convening the government benefits administrators and service provider partners who are driving these innovative changes to inform our research and ensure it could be useful to them and others like them. We look forward to working with those and other partners over the coming year to get the insights and best practices from these guides into the hands of more people working inside and alongside government to improve the delivery of the safety net.
The partnership of the staff at government agencies and organizations whose work is highlighted was critical to researching and publishing these guides. We appreciate their generous time and support. The credits at the beginning of each guide include their names and affiliations.
We credit current and past Beeck Center fellows Ariel Kennan, Chad Smith, Sara Soka, and Katie Sullivan for developing the publications featured in this post, along with past and current Georgetown student analysts Elaina Faust, Angela Guo, Elle Meyers, and Megan Nguyen. Funding support for this work has been provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Blue Meridian Partners. The opinions contained within these publications are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the foundations or partners.