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How to redesign America’s safety net

The United States needs a safety net now more than ever. Code for America shows how government agencies can meet Americans where they are.

How to redesign America’s safety net
[Image: courtesy Code for America]

With restaurants, bars, and other businesses closing across the United States to slow the spread of COVID-19, people are applying for unemployment in such large numbers that states’ websites are crashing. America’s safety net has never been more critical, and it’s faltering.

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How can government agencies make it easier for people to receive public benefits online and through mobile? The San Francisco nonprofit Code for America has a blueprint called “Human-Centered Safety Net.” It’s a set of five design principles that government agencies can use to improve the usability of a range of programs and application processes. Though a few years old, the project is newly relevant as the fallout for COVID-19 will no doubt thrust scores of Americans onto public assistance. “A time when people have heightened need is the worst time for people to be experiencing administrative burden,” says Lou Moore, interim co-CEO and chief technology officer. “When we design and deliver products based on our principles of a human-centered safety net, we can reduce that burden and allow people to get through with less friction.”

[Image: courtesy Code for America]

Some of the principles might seem obvious. Make the application process easy to understand. Keep an application’s number of steps to a minimum. But government agencies are notoriously slow to innovate (more on that in our series The Government Fix) and often lack the resources to design and develop clear, sophisticated apps and websites. Human-Centered Safety Net puts the most important high-level considerations in one place—and includes case studies and actionable tips—for agencies that might not know where to begin. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Because of social distancing, Americans will need to access benefits online and through their mobile devices. The government’s digital services can’t fail.

Moore and his team began working on the project as a way to streamline the dense, complicated application process for public benefit programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. This process has been historically analog, with handwritten and phone interview components that can take hours. It also relies on an assembly line of administrators and case workers to get citizens approved.

[Image: courtesy Code for America]

In Michigan, for example, the organization worked to improve a combined application for SNAP and Medicaid for people seeking multiple types of assistance at the same time (the two services historically have required totally distinct applications, even though many of the questions overlap). “When we first created this, there was no way to apply for benefits on a mobile device, and the only options for applying online had many more questions than were necessary,” Moore says. “So we designed something that captures all the same data that the case workers need but takes about 8 to 10 minutes to complete.” (Historically, applying for SNAP benefits alone took about an hour.)

In Louisiana and California, the Human-Centered Safety Net was used to establish one-way texting between government agencies and clients (similar to how politicians send updates to voters’ phones). This system was used by WIC and Medicaid to send appointment reminders and application status updates to clients; thanks to the design principles established by Code for America’s blueprint, people who opted in to get these texts had up to an 80% higher chance of staying engaged with the process and following through with appointments, according to Code for America.

Now, as COVID-19 stretches the nation’s public benefits to the brink, government organizations will have to pivot to online and mobile services. Tracey Patterson, senior director of Social Safety Net, estimates that while 50% of applications for public benefits (like healthcare, food assistance, and economic support) were filed via phone the week before last, last week it was up to 90%. “Getting a website to shift to getting mobile access can happen quickly so we should be thinking about how to have a direct line to clients right now through something like texting . . . [we’re] moving to streamline and remove as many frictions in the enrollment process as possible,” she says.

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Moving forward, the team behind the Human-Centered Safety Net plans to continue using digital design and communication platforms to help millions of citizens apply quickly for government aid—in the immediate future and beyond. “If we can show this works during a crisis, we should build sustainability around it,” Patterson says. “[We need to] focus on how we strengthen and support those practices because economic crises hit low-income people the hardest and the longest, so any of these advances we’re placing in the short term we need to keep for the long term.”

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