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Last week, I and several of my Socure colleagues participated in the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois. Like many trade shows and annual conferences, this year’s show was the first time the national community of state workforce agencies gathered in person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NASWA’s reunion was a bit different from other reunions in 2022 because of the unique perspective that NASWA members, who were on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, were able to share with one another. As government and commercial offices closed amid the global health crisis and economic turndown, state unemployment agencies engaged in an unprecedented day-to-day struggle—their normal models of supporting citizens seeking unemployment benefits had to be transitioned online virtually overnight, and demand for public benefits surged to levels never seen before as companies shut down, and our economy teetered on the edge of collapse.

Addressing fraud and inequity in the economic downturn

State workforce agencies had no easy solutions to deal with the volume and complexity of federal and state benefit programs that were created to help stem the economic repercussions of the pandemic. The perseverance and herculean efforts of these civil servants during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression were remarkable. A statement from the Department of Labor adds some context to the scope of the challenge these civil servants faced:

Prior to the pandemic, numbers of UI [unemployment insurance] claims were historically low. On March 14, 2020, the Department reported 282,000 initial claims. Within 2 to 3 weeks, initial claims rose to 10 times pre-pandemic levels, far higher than state systems were designed to handle. Within 5 months, through August 15, 2020, the Department reported 57.4 million initial claims, the largest increase since the Department began tracking UI data in 1967.

During the NASWA event last week, we heard a common refrain from states, “We made it!” The exuberance of looking back at the pandemic from the other side, however, rightly gave way to significant introspection. In individual conversations and in panel after panel, attendees focused on preparing for the next significant economic downturn. Participants know that processes were suboptimal at best, and that fraud, waste, and inequity continue to plague unemployment and other public benefit programs.  

What struck me and my fellow Socure attendees was how these recurring themes aligned with the discussions we’ve been having across the country with various government agencies. It boils down to frustration with current models, and the resulting desire to find new ways to enable everyone with a legitimate need to access services with minimal friction. At the same time, the people who run these agencies want better fraud models that will help them catch innovative schemers seeking to divert precious resources from those in need. Executives in the U.S. Department of Labor, civil society leaders, and front-line state workforce administrators know they must dramatically accelerate initiatives to make it easier for hard-to-reach and historically disadvantaged communities to work their way through complex eligibility and payment processes. Participants discussed some of the novel fraud vectors they were able to stop but acknowledged it often feels like a losing battle as fraudsters out-innovate systems and processes that were designed when fraud was less networked than it is today.

The new focus: Prevent fraud and improve user experience

A recent report issued by the Department of Labor Inspector General last week is also a stark reminder of what we’re all up against. According to the IG Report, analysis of claims during the pandemic shows that more than $28 billion in federal benefits were paid to the same identities in multiple states while more than $16 billion was paid to individuals with suspicious emails. Approximately 205,000 SSNs associated with deceased individuals were used to secure benefits, and nearly one million SSNs were used in multiple states to apply for benefits simultaneously.

Criminal fraud rings and bad actors are networked, and state workforce agencies must leverage new models to ensure their defenses are keeping up with them. In the lead up to the event, Socure released findings from a series of polls we conducted across six politically and geographically diverse states to gauge citizen experience with programs like unemployment insurance. The findings were dismaying, but align with the feedback we heard and with insights from the Inspector General’s most recent report:  

  • Nearly 45% of citizens encountered problems accessing programs and services during the pandemic.  
  • More than 50% of citizens felt that the online experience was frustrating and far too time consuming.  
  • Greater than 40% of people had to undergo manual reviews to move through the process, and 35% abandoned the ID verification process entirely because they had difficulty completing it.  
  • Significant percentages of citizens experienced untenable delays getting benefits once they were approved.  
  • Barriers to service were felt more acutely by non-white citizens than white counterparts.

NASWA Connect 2022 was a sober reminder that we can and must do better. Socure is committed to helping state workforce agencies innovate in their critical public benefit missions. I hope we’ll have an opportunity in the coming months to show how Socure’s leading capabilities can deliver better experiences for citizens and make it easier for states to deal with complex program delivery—while also protecting precious taxpayer dollars from sophisticated criminal fraud enterprises that are looking to exploit public trust and massive demand for economic assistance.

Learn more about public sector identity verification and fraud prevention strategies with a demo of Socure.

Brendan Peter
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Brendan Peter

Brendan Peter

Brendan M. Peter has 25 years of executive-level experience at the intersection of global public policy and strategic business growth with a specific focus on identity-related policy. Brendan serves as Socure's Vice President of Government Relations. Immediately prior to joining Socure, he served as Head of U.S. Government Relations for Seagate Technology, the world’s leading advanced storage technologies company. Brendan's identity-related government relations experience includes serving as Vice President of Government Relations for IDEMIA, the largest biometric and identity security company; Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Affairs for CA Technologies, one of the world’s largest independent software companies; and Head of Government Affairs for LexisNexis. In these roles, Brendan had led global public policy, corporate social responsibility and thought leadership programs and served as the principal executive advisor to the CEO and Executive Management team on a wide range of public policy issues globally.