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What Government Programs Should Measure: How Well They Help People

We need to give the public servants who manage safety-net systems the technology tools and incentives to track critical outcomes and meet people where they are.

Food Stamp (SNAP) sign.
Food Stamp (SNAP) sign. (Shutterstock)
As we begin the new year, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way government serves the people it represents. We're seeing an openness to changing government benefits programs, especially in creating digital pathways to services. Conversations around racial equity that have been sidelined for decades are finally coming to the forefront, including in how government serves people. And we are all united around the urgency of this moment's health and economic challenges.

One of the most significant steps we can take is changing what we measure. Rather than keeping track of bureaucratic milestones, government should measure how well it helps the people it serves. This would help keep our eye on the prize and focus efforts on addressing poverty, food insecurity and racial equity.

We know that, when done right, government can be the single most powerful lever to help people in a time of need. For every one meal that a philanthropically funded food bank provides to someone who is hungry, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) can provide nine.

We in the Digital Benefits Coalition know from experience that, while it's not always easy, it is possible for government programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance to reach people in need. And we know that when they succeed at that, there are meaningful results.

Before COVID-19, that safety net had cut poverty in this country in half. But it is still not reaching all of the people it should — or reaching people as quickly and efficiently as it should — because many of the systems behind it were not designed in a human-centered way.

Consider the way these systems failed when the pandemic ground our economy to a halt: 70 million Americans waited weeks to receive stimulus checks, and more than 250,000 newly jobless workers waited 70-plus days to receive unemployment benefits. And when they tried to validate their eligibility, they were met with jammed phone lines and overwhelmed websites.

A significant part of the problem is that these safety-net systems have far too often been built to fit administrative requirements and to question applicant's motives. That is, they've been built to ask complicated questions for compliance reports or to implement duplicative processes to fulfill an administrative checklist.

But what if we found new, human-centered ways to measure their success? What if we gave public servants the right tools and incentives to provide human-centered services? What if we decided that we are what we measure?

For example, what if we measured by benefits-participation rates and focused on people who are eligible but not enrolled? What if we decided success looked like reducing the billions of federal dollars that are left on the table every year because people don't realize they're eligible for benefits programs, or by how close we were to reaching every hungry child in the country and eliminating child hunger?

What if we consistently measured customer satisfaction? We're all asked to leave reviews or give feedback to almost every private-sector company we interact with. Could more government services ask the public how satisfied they are with their experience, or how it might be upgraded in a meaningful way?

And what if we measured for efficiency and efficacy? Not in dollars spent by government but in the time it takes to deliver benefits that are sufficient to meet people's needs.

When you're living paycheck to paycheck, every single day of delay matters. And maybe, just maybe, if we were able to reduce the number of days that it took to enroll in SNAP or unemployment insurance and receive adequate assistance, families wouldn't have to drive to a food bank and wait for hours for a box of pre-selected food just to make sure dinner would be on the table.

Here's the good news: This is already possible. Before and during the pandemic, our coalition and government partners have shown that it's possible to use a human-centered approach that measures critical outcomes and meets people where they are. Contact centers offering dignified and personalized public benefit assistance, digital enrollment assistance for SNAP and keeping children fed through Pandemic EBT application services are just a few successful examples from across the country.

This is the time to fix broken systems so they're ready for the next crisis, and so our safety net can do what it's supposed to: catch people who are falling. We're ready to build back better. Let's make sure we're using the right tools and metrics to do it.

The authors represent the Digital Benefits Coalition, a group of organizations united in the belief that open-source digital infrastructure can be harnessed to facilitate faster, smarter, safer public administration.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Former Missouri secretary of state
Executive director of the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative at New America
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