Digital Identity and Public Benefits: Announcing a New Research Agenda

Digital identity has become an increasingly important research topic for the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. We come to this work in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made secure online access to government programs more important than ever before.

For agencies that administer public benefits, successfully providing access to applications and enrollment processes remotely involves balancing multiple, potentially conflicting, priorities around privacy, fraud prevention, and accessibility to ensure equitable outcomes. Indeed, over the past several months, we have heard from government practitioners who continue to navigate various challenges around digital identity. Media and advocacy organizations have also focused a public spotlight on the use of verification systems in place for unemployment insurance and accessing tax information. Meanwhile, the government has responded by changing the systems in use.


DBN’s Digital Identity Research Agenda

With this context, the Digital Benefits Network is launching a new, ongoing research agenda to provide up-to-date, in-depth learnings about identity verification and authentication practices across core social safety net programs. This includes work around the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance (UI), and child care applications. As we introduce this project to the public, we are eager to engage with practitioners across benefits agencies, and stakeholders at the federal and state level through research, convenings, and resource sharing.

Driving this research is our concern about applications of identity proofing that create additional burdens for applicants, potentially block benefits seekers from applying for or receiving benefits, duplicate processes across programs, and raise challenging issues around privacy and data security. We are also concerned that the advocacy around recent technology implementations has been an all or nothing approach to remove a type of technology, rather than supporting government practitioners in navigating solutions to produce equitable outcomes. 

We know through our early research and engagement that there are myriad login and identity verification solutions in place across programs, and there are likely similar concerns about ethics, privacy, accessibility, and usability. By learning from practitioners, we hope to highlight common challenges as well as best practices that can be shared and amplified.


Initial Resources & Timeline

Following an initial period of background research, we are excited to release a collection of introductory digital identity resources for benefits practitioners and decision makers. These include:

  • A glossary of digital identity terms
  • A primer, What is Digital Identity?
  • A short explainer about digital identity in public benefits programs
  • A high-level overview of federal engagement around digital identity topics

This resource collection will grow over time. For example, we are currently working on an assessment of login and identity proofing practices across unemployment insurance applications which we plan to release publicly in early 2023. We are also working with Code for America to support similar analyses for SNAP, WIC, TANF, and child care applications which will be released next year. We also plan on providing deeper analysis of the challenges, solutions, and needs across benefits programs through surveys, interviews, and events.

On Tuesday, December 6th, we hosted the DBN’s inaugural quarterly call, a new event series designed to promote collaboration and discussion on ethical and equitable technology in public benefits. Our first-ever session focused on digital identity in public benefits, highlighting priorities for 2023. 

During the call, we heard from two speakers: April Dunlap, Policy Administrator for Arizona’s Department of Economic Security and Professor Michele Gilman, Venable Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development at the University of Baltimore School of Law. April Dunlap walked attendees through DES’s unemployment insurance application and identity verification process, emphasizing the importance of offering claimants multiple ways to access benefits applications and satisfy identity verification requirements. Professor Gilman shared high-level findings from her 2022 article about identity verification in unemployment insurance programs during the pandemic, and outlined paths forward for equitable implementation, including how to use design justice approaches to improve benefits delivery. April and Michele both highlighted opportunities for the federal government to continue helping states equitably implement identity verification and online benefits access through research, guidance, and funding. 

You can watch the full recording of the event online. The dialogue in the chat and during the Q&A underscored the need for more conversations on this topic, and we will continue creating spaces for dialogue and collaboration on this issue.


Get Involved

Agencies or individuals interested in following or participating in our research have several ways to stay engaged and get in touch. First, you can subscribe to the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) to stay up to date on our work. 

If you would like to learn more about our research or discuss your own experiences administering identification and authentication processes in a benefits program, we encourage you to reach out to us at We also welcome your questions. We’d like to know which topics you are most interested in learning about from our research. For instance, what digital identity issues feel most pressing to you and your organization?

It’s clear that we are at a pivotal point in the development and use of identification and authentication technologies, both inside and outside government, which is why we are launching our research now. It is our hope that our work will spotlight the complexity of the digital identity space, and the particular difficulties benefits programs face.