How Poor Technology Choices Can Magnify the Challenges Faced by Those Seeing Government Services
For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the previous four weeks three to four additional people tried to apply but could not get through the system to make a claim. Two additional people did not try to apply because it was too difficult to do so. When we extrapolate our survey findings to the full five weeks of UI claims since March 15, we estimate that an additional 8.9–13.9 million people could have filed for benefits had the process been easier. [Emphasis added]
Unemployment filing failures: New survey confirms that millions of jobless were unable to file an unemployment insurance claim. Economic Policy Institute
The impact on jobs and our economy from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the attempts by our government to provide relief for those impacted through the CARES Act has brought into sharp focus the issue of administrative burden. Administrative burden can be succinctly defined as “an individual’s experience of a policy’s implementation as onerous.”
In the book, Administrative Burden: Policy Making by Other Means, Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan define administrative burden as the aggregate learning cost, compliance cost, and psychological cost of meeting the requirements to access a government service or benefit. As we watch almost in real time as state benefit systems fail again and again from the increased demand for benefits spurred by the crisis, we see that the cost of this burden is steep indeed.
Turning Burdens up to 11
A key takeaway for me from the writing of Herd and Moynihan is that efforts to impact administrative burden can have a reinforcing effect. Efforts running in parallel to ease burdens can sometimes amplify each other:
…program simplification around the brand of BadgerCare [the name for the State of Wisconsin’s Medicaid program] lessoned burdens not only by reducing the number of forms an applicant had to complete, but also by facilitating marketing and outreach efforts around a single easily identifiable non stigmatizing program. Any approach to reducing burdens should therefore consider how different techniques can work together. [Emphasis added]
It seems obvious now that this amplifying effect can work the other way as well, and that many of the issues we are seeing with state benefit systems are a result of this form of “burden reinforcement.”
Poor technology choices — many of them easily avoidable and relatively easy to correct — are reinforcing the existing administrative burden faced by applicants. The impact of these technology choices is often inadvertent, and distinct from technology implementations that may be made specifically to enhance burdens, and reduce access to programs or benefits.
What are some examples? This is far from an exhaustive list, but some that easily come to mind are:
- Dynamically generation of web pages for information about the ongoing crisis, rather than static pages, or the use of optimized caching.
- Leveraging browser-specific functionality, or failing to optimize for mobile, or low-bandwidth situations.
- Sites not optimized for disability access.
- Sites not optimized to scale out to meet demand in times of heavy use.
- Poorly designed or confusing IVR trees
- Poorly advertised contact, office location, or mailing address information.
- Poorly designed, confusing or opaque content on program details or requirements.
None of these observations are new or original, and there are some amazing resources available that provide insights into the technology choices that support public benefit systems across all fifty states that are worth exploring in depth.
What seems overlooked in the literature about administrative burden that the current crisis helps underscore is that these poor technology choices can be “situationally burdensome,” amplifying burden more acutely when circumstances change. The environment in which burdens play out, and have an impact on those who apply for services, is dynamic. As circumstances change, design choices that may not have presented a significant burden to users in the past, can present new and unforeseen challenges.
For example, state unemployment benefits might be conditioned on an applicant certifying during the application process that they would return to work if offered a job. In most circumstances, including such a requirement in the application process might seem like a modest burden to impose (and one easily rationalized by policy makers). However, during a global pandemic, where returning to a shared workplace might present real health risks, it creates a dilemma for applicants. This policy choice carries a situational burden and dramatically impacts the learning and compliance costs of applying for benefits during a health crisis.
Similarly, a state that neglects to design a benefit system to scale adequately to meet demand runs the risk of imposing a situational burden. During times when demand for services are steady or relatively modest, these choices may not impose an undue burden on applicants. But when demand for a service spikes, applicants are often confronted with significant burdens in accessing services.
But why should we care so much about these kinds of technology choices, and the reinforcing impact they can have on the burden eligible recipients face in accessing services?
These choices serve to amplify the existing burden associated with accessing information or services from government, specifically learning and compliance burdens, by making a service more difficult to apply for using a technology device (a web browser or telephone). This amplified burden falls disproportionately on people with restricted access to technology, or who use less modern technology. So, correcting these issues will disproportionately benefit these populations as well.
These fixes should be non-controversial, and in some cases relatively easy. Correcting these mistakes won’t impact eligibility for a service, or requirements for receiving benefits — just the level of effort required to find out about a service, and comply with requirements.
Correcting these issues can also be a way to help underscore the importance of sound technology choices as a way to buffer against administrative burden. Helping policy makers and others in government understand why these choices amplify burden can act as a pathway to understanding the connection between properly implemented technology and sound policy execution.
One final reason why helping governments fix these common mistakes, that is often less talked about, is accountability. In her book Automating Inequity, Virginia Eubanks provides a vivid and detailed description into the design of public benefit systems specifically engineered to reduce take-up by eligible recipients. She uses the example of the State of Indiana’s welfare automation effort to illustrate:
The Indiana automated eligibility system enhanced the state’s already well-developed diversion apparatus…[b]y narrowing the gate for public benefits and raising the penalties for noncompliance, it achieved stunning welfare role reductions.
Poor technology choices that reinforce burdens and make it more difficult for applicants to receive benefits can create confusion about why people don’t apply for or receive benefits. Is it because systems are designed to be punitive, and are engineered to remove eligible people from the benefit rolls more quickly? Or is it because the burden they present (or are perceived to present) to eligible applicants, through long wait times and confusing requirements, seems insurmountable and not worth the effort?
Our ability to hold our officials accountable for the policy choices they make is obscured when they can blame a lack of take-up for benefits on a website issue or technical glitch. Helping to ensure that sound technology choices are made is the best way to ensure that those eligible for public services receive them as quickly and as easily as possible.
It’s also the best way to ensure that our leaders are held accountable for the policy choices they make.