Service delivery has become a key problem for all levels of government. The COVID-19 pandemic forced governments to rethink the way they deliver services, and that push has not slowed down since the crisis has subsided.
At the inaugural BenCon 2023 hosted by the Beeck Center for Social Impact at Georgetown University, more than 120 practitioners from 70 organizations gathered in Washington, D.C. on June 13-14, 2023. We were honored to have Socure VP & Head of Public Sector Jordan Burris speak with leaders in the space a “The Equitable Tech Horizon in Digital Benefits Panel” about how to improve customer experience and equity.
- Jordan Burris, Socure’s VP and Head of Public Sector Strategy
- Amy Ashida, GSA/TTS Public Benefits Studio
- Elizabeth Laird, Center for Democracy and Technology
- Florence Noël, Civilla
- Moderator: Ariel Kennan, Digital Benefits Network
Enabling digital identity access for Americans regardless of race, age, gender, and socioeconomic background is a key goal for Socure. Since the pandemic, we’ve had a chance to evaluate the digital identity ecosystem and determine what “good” looks like. We want to improve the ways individuals assert their identities online, and we were excited to contribute to the discussion at BenCon 2023.
Q: What are the systemic shifts that need to happen to improve digital benefits delivery?
Amy Ashida: I love to focus on the building blocks that help us create experiences for the public and our staff…One of the things my team is specifically working on is making sure folks have the right information at the right time. A fancy new technology isn’t going to work if that’s not there. My team is working on a tool so programs can send text messages to participants. One of the other pilots is around digital identity and verifying identity at post offices.
Q: Can you tell us more about how the government can incorporate equity into digital service delivery?
Elizabeth Laird: I think about it as a two-sided coin. On one side, it’s about making sure that benefits and the positive outcomes of technology are available to everyone…As we’ve talked about, closing the digital divide and making sure services are available. Another example is accessibility and making sure the tools you have work for people with disabilities.
The other side of the coin is making sure no individuals experience disproportionate or negative harm because of technology. In some states, people have lost benefits because of automated systems. I don’t believe that was the intention; folks are doing this work to help people, and we can find better ways to do this.
Q: What are the most important things the government and the industry should be doing as they implement systems for digital benefits?
Jordan Burris: How many times have you had to wait online, in person, or via phone to access a service or benefit? (half of the crowd raises hands) How many always have to go in-person? (a few hands stay raised) A problem we see in the identity verification industry today is that they are presented with friction every time they need to prove who they are online. That comes down to systemic gaps in our identity infrastructure.
If you were to ask me, it’s fragmented and broken due to an overreliance on two basic ways they prove their digital identities. One is the credit ecosystem…those who don’t have financial background or have not engaged with the system are largely left out. The alternative is a reliance on foundational government documents like a Social Security card or birth certificate. What happens if you don’t have access to those things? How much burden are we putting on you? I often talk about my youngest daughter, who was not issued a Social Security card due to a clerical error. My wife and I had to wait in line at the Social Security Administration to get a card. What happens if you don’t have the means to do that and every hour is detrimental to your livelihood? I grew up in a family living paycheck to paycheck, and that time makes a difference. For those folks who don’t have those foundational documents, they are further left out of the process.
Another issue comes with barriers to getting documents: I recently had to apply for a birth certificate at the Department of Vital Statistics. They asked me some questions about my history, but there was one that stumped me. I took a 50/50 guess and got it right, but these barriers shouldn’t exist in a modern society.
The identity verification foundation needs to be shored up. We need to look holistically at these individuals. There are other data points and elements that need to be analyzed and evaluated. From there, we can confirm their identity and make sure they aren’t being left behind. Ultimately, we need to be increasing transparency about our ability as providers to verify identity, from the public and private sectors. What is our ability to accurately verify individuals? What is the percentage of people that experience friction? What is our degree of accuracy? Only then are we able to start tackling the problem of digital identity.
We should also dispel the belief that if you can’t get something online, you need to go in person. That shouldn’t be the case. If you want the online channel, you should be able to use it. I find it unacceptable that this isn’t already the case.
Q: What new customer-centered performance metrics would you recommend for SNAP, Medicaid, etc.?
Burris: There are four core metrics around digital identity:
- Auto-approval: the ability to verify someone’s identity online without adding undue friction. If you get more information, you can see why people fall out – we see upwards of 50% abandonment rates.
- False positive or false negative rates: you can be denying someone with a legitimate identity or letting in fraud. We have a fraud problem that should be called out. This is not to say we should make it so draconian so people cannot access benefits, but there are ways to manage security and fraud without harming the customer experience.
- Return on investment: simply, we want to see the costs of manual review and long lines.
- Fraud capture: We want to see how many bad guys we’re stopping at the door. The fraud we saw during the pandemic wasn’t a one-time event.
Ashida: I’d like to see how long it takes people to do things. How long it takes them to fill out an application, how long it takes to get a determination, and how long it takes for people to receive benefits. I’d also like to measure things around people that we aren’t currently serving. One of my least favorite biases is “survivorship bias” where we optimize for the people that make it through because we can reach out to them. But it’s hard to find the people that didn’t make it through the process. We are often optimizing for the people that the system works for.