The United States federal government communicates the eligibility criteria for social safety net benefits through legislation passed by Congress as well as regulations and policies issued by the corresponding administering agencies. Many of the rules governed by these policies are not uniform across programs and can have different definitions for fundamental concepts such as who is included in a household and what constitutes income. This system creates barriers to accessing services for individuals who are attempting to access one or more programs to address their needs, as well as for state and local government agencies and delivery organizations to interpret the legislation, regulations, and policy for the delivery of benefits in their jurisdiction.
The burdens created by complex rules intersect in digital services. For example, for individuals seeking benefits, there will always be a level of complexity to the questions asked in the forms in order to meet the requirements established by the rules. And for states, local governments, and organizations creating digital services, as they interpret the program rules in order to write code in software used for both eligibility pre-screening and final enrollment determinations. Not only does this duplicate efforts across locales and organizations, but it also leaves much of the rules interpretation and testing for accuracy up to the technology implementer.
As part of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation’s series on documenting best practices in social safety net benefits access and delivery, this guide to Benefits Eligibility Rules as Code explores how the U.S. federal government could utilize new approaches for the eligibility requirements of core safety net programs to improve efficiency and equity of delivery. Based on research with U.S.-based and international governments and delivery organizations, and field experts, recommended approaches include further harmonizing the definitions for core means-tested requirements, utilizing a “rules as code” approach to improve the digitization of legislation and policy documents, incentivizing states, local governments, and delivery organizations to integrate open source rules code and data feeds, and creating new policy tools.
The rules as code movement is nascent, but quickly growing and proving successful in other countries. It is imperative that the United States begin formalizing an approach to adopting rules as code for the safety net to lessen the gap between policy and service delivery in digital systems.
Please reach out to us if you have questions about this guide or want to be involved in the next steps of adopting a rules as code approach for the U.S. public benefits system: firstname.lastname@example.org.