No-Stop Government’s Biggest Hurdle
Many Americans will never know the indignity and frustration of having to navigate several government agencies to get the support they need in a time of crisis, like a job loss, loss of health insurance or lack of food for their family. This is a good thing; however, this privilege most of us have also comes with a cost: the inability to empathize with those having to navigate our government interfaces.
One increasingly popular solution to this is the concept of no-stop government, which is the idea that government already likely has your data (via legitimate means) and can help you with your current situation without having to gather a ream of new data from you. For example, if you move to a new city in your state, that event would trigger a welcome packet from the local government with local school enrollment part-way filled out because the agency would already have your data from, for example, your home purchase.
As someone who has worked to build better digital services and interfaces for government for some years now, I’m on board with this idea. I think it’s a crucial change that resets some of the power dynamics that hurt people. But I don’t think the barrier to this shiny new future is a technological one. The barrier to getting a privacy-protecting, pro-active form of no-stop government is trust — or, in the United States, a growing lack of trust in our institutions.
The barrier to getting a privacy-protecting, pro-active form of no-stop government is trust — or, in the United States, a growing lack of trust in our institutions.
At present, my work involves recreating the “social opportunity system” to be more equitable and dignified, and a large part of our work at Alluma is designing and running systems that let people apply for public benefits. Most of the time, when someone hits a rough patch and has urgent material poverty, that person is left to navigate a morass of government programs that might possibly help them on their own.
Perhaps they find the application page for MediCal, plug in their data, qualify, and go through the formal enrollment process and some weeks later get that health coverage they need — great! Or is it? They gave one government agency a whole swath of personal information (their data) to qualify, yet those data get used just once and are then stored.
As Vivek Kundra once said, data is the rocket fuel of the economy, and this applies to data held by government agencies. Why should those personal data just be stored for audit purposes when an improved consent process (and improved machinery behind the scenes, of course) might ensure that one agency sends your anonymized data to a central service that checks for your eligibility into a whole realm of other public and private programs you could benefit from?
These are called nexus, or linkages. If you tell me that you are 46, male, have children, and make $40,000 a year in California, I can use those data points to tell you that you not only qualify for MediCal, but also CalFresh (SNAP), a discounted telephone line, and discounted utility bills.
In our new platform, an individual can choose to opt-in to a new benefit application that we can pre-screen them for automatically, using data they’ve provided and with consent. By doing this, we take the burden off help seekers.
This way of thinking is being implemented in other countries under what is called the “Twice Mandatory” rule in Estonia, a country that leads in digital innovation in government. A more human-friendly way to think of this, according to Harvard Professor Stephen Goldsmith, is “ask information only once, but use at least twice.” While the principle of using data more than once is an important one, along the rocket fuel metaphor (only data is not a fossil fuel that will one day run short), the key principle here is the one of reducing the burden on the materially poor or needy to pro-actively seek out and apply for programs. The current approach in the U.S. ensures that both money will be left on the table (In Oregon alone, $100 million of EITC went unclaimed in just one year!) and that millions of likely qualified individuals will never even learn about programs they might benefit from.
This is madness. When people need help, the more we can offer them, the better — yet our system now is designed with a scarcity mindset instead of one that believes, “We have all these programs to help you, and we have enough of your data to tell you that yes, you can get help in all these great ways!” We all know that if you teach a person to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime; well, all of us who came of age with Arrested Development playing loud do. Why, as a society, are we comfortable with systems that withhold help from people just because people don’t find out about their programs?
To play devil’s advocate, or rather to argue for the status quo for a minute, the reality is that this is not the norm because every government agency has a mandate to do JUST THE ONE THING THEY ARE MEANT TO and nothing more. And this is logical — but it leads to silos and barriers, and it does not enable a seamless government experience that truly serves people where they are. Yes, it is more expensive to enable data governance across multiple agencies, especially from city to county to state, but this is being done well in increasingly frequency, often with Integrated Data Sharing systems or Data Trusts.
One way we at Alluma are approaching this problem is from a “whole person mindset” — our new platform combines traditional eligibility and enrollment with community referrals and positions the user in control of their data, not a single government agency. In our new platform, an individual can choose to opt-in to a new benefit application that we can pre-screen them for automatically, using data they’ve provided and with consent. By doing this, we take the burden off help seekers to discover new programs and remove most of the barrier to entering data over and over again. And this is just the start.
What can government do to help? We’ve yielded so much of our private lives to big tech companies for so little in return, it’s past time for government to step up and say, “We saw you were interested in this program, and we also know that you’re likely eligible for these other supports. Can we automatically enroll you?”
How can government build enough trust so that historically underserved communities in particular will trust government enough to share data when it’s needed?
Which brings us back to trust. None of the technologies and data systems needed for this are beyond our reach, but our country has seen decades of declining trust in government, and the past two decades in particular have seen society fragment into partisan sects. The only way to build trust is to earn it, so we’re told early in our lives and our careers. So how can government build enough trust so that historically underserved communities in particular will trust government enough to share data when it’s needed?
I suggest we start making it a priority. We can start with focused, no-stop programs in collaboration with community advocates and community-based organizations. We can give them insights into privacy and security measures, oversight of how data will be used, the messaging to be given to individuals seeking help, and share data on the success and failures of such efforts with these stakeholders.
Working this way is slower, but we didn’t go from “100% trusting all things government” to where we are now in a week; it’s been decades, and we can start to turn this around slowly but surely. And, one day in our future, when someone you know loses their job and/or their healthcare, their experience will be one of swift and sustaining support — not one of frustrated application portals and uncertainty.
Steve "Spike" Spiker is a data-inspired collaborator and leader with a focus on tech for good, government transparency, and public policy. In his role as Alluma’s Chief Data Officer, he’s building out a data practice for the entire organization, from data governance to business intelligence. Follow Spike on LinkedIn and Twitter.