Making Technology Work for the Public Sector
Emerging technologies — from AI and machine learning to advanced data analytics — hold incredible promise to transform nearly every facet of society. But in the public sector, interacting with technology can be burdensome.
While the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov may be the most famous example, it’s emblematic of challenges that exist with government technology from the national down to the local level. The reasons for this challenge are, in some ways, understandable: bureaucratic systems are rarely agile or fast-moving enough to keep up with the pace of technological change, and must always balance innovation with the need to ensure security and privacy (particularly with sensitive data, like tax or medical information). Moreover, the “move fast and break things” approach that has traditionally guided the tech space isn’t possible when dealing with sensitive and critical benefits for millions of people. When technology isn’t working for federal, state, and local governments, fewer people are able to access critical safety net benefits that can put them and their families on a path to economic stability and advancement.
But there’s hope ahead. Technological advances, coupled with increasing experience and enthusiasm on the part of public-sector leaders, have sparked partnerships between government and technology providers that are making a meaningful impact on improving people’s lives. Here are three examples of the way that technology is helping the government better support the workers and families it is meant to serve.
Rehab for HealthCare.gov
The launch of what has been called “the worst website in America” is best known for what went wrong: a disastrous rollout that undermined the entire vision of HealthCare.gov as an accessible, simple way to access health insurance. But there’s an optimistic side to the story, as well: HealthCare.gov still works today, thanks to the work of dedicated technologists and public servants who put out the fire, and those experts have now launched a project of their own.
In the wake of HealthCare.gov’s rapid-fire rehabilitation, some of the people who helped fix the platform founded Nava, a public benefit corporation that aims to build better technological systems for governments. Using a set of clear principles — user-centered design; strong technical architecture; and a process designed around the slow pace of bureaucracy — they were able to rebuild HealthCare.gov into a website that actually served its intended purpose: helping more people access health insurance for themselves and their families. The record-breaking 16.3 million people who signed up for coverage through the federal marketplace last fall is, to be sure, a far cry from the six who were able to select health plans on the first day of HealthCare.gov’s 2013 relaunch. And they’re still going strong: Nava was recently brought on by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to improve how its products serve millions of federal retirees.
Expanding access to the safety net in Minnesota
It used to take an hour to apply for public benefits in Minnesota, if you were able to apply at all. The application only worked on desktop computers, and was only available in English — making it nearly impossible to access, particularly with libraries and other public offices closed during the pandemic. So the state teamed up with nonprofit Code for America to build a better and faster system, one that worked on mobile devices and updated weekly, rather than quarterly.
The early results of the program have been promising: most notably, the application time dropped to under 15 minutes. As Code for America’s Dustin Palmer said to Fast Company last year, “If you just look at our impact across the people who have used it so far since we went statewide, in November of last year, that’s almost 10 years of client time returned to people who are trying to make ends meet just in Minnesota.”
Breaking down barriers to UI in Alabama and Louisiana
Non-standard workers (that is, anyone who doesn’t get a “traditional” W-2 pay stub, like gig and contingent workers) often face the greatest barriers to accessing public benefits. Historically, the primary method of verification for public benefits is through recent pay stubs, submitted either by the worker or their employer. By law, workers who earn 1099 income are not required to receive a pay stub; independent contractors, self-employed, and even gig workers are responsible for self-reporting their income yearly. Traditionally, there hasn’t been an easy way to verify income for a 1099 worker (or mixed earner), so, they’re left with mountains of paperwork and complicated application processes that take months to process (if they even get submitted).
State leaders in both Alabama and Louisiana have tackled this problem head-on, working with SteadyIQ to streamline the income verification process for 1099/gig workers from a matter of weeks to a matter of minutes through its Income Passport solution. Because SteadyIQ securely links to members’ bank accounts, it can generate a real-time “digital paystub” that eliminates all the paperwork hurdles for non-standard workers. In Alabama, that meant the average time to process a UI claim decreased from 30-60 minutes to 1-2 minutes. In Louisiana, it reduced the time for workers to receive benefits from three weeks to less than a day. (For more about Income Passport’s capabilities, we invite you to schedule a demo.)
The future of technology in the public sector
It’s unlikely that technology will ever be a silver bullet for the country’s highly fragmented public benefits system. But these examples demonstrate that it’s possible for it to work far better than we’ve gotten used to. The Biden Administration has already taken steps to realize the potential of technology through their executive order on improving the customer experience; in the years to come, can federal, state, and local leaders continue to make good on technology’s promise as a lever to improve access and equity.