Tackling Challenges Amplified by COVID-19: Best Practices for State and County Social Safety Net Agencies

COVID-19 has taught us all a powerful lesson: government assistance matters. When it is direct and not funneled through the hoops of means-testing and justification of vulnerability and need, it is the primary tool that can both help meet the needs of the American people and maintain economic activity. 

Impacts of the pandemic have exposed how close to the edge many Americans live. At the same time, the stress of millions of people seeking help is pushing our country’s safety net systems to the edge. During this unprecedented convergence of public health, social, and economic crises, systems that provide critical government assistance must work efficiently and effectively, not serve as barriers to getting help. 

Based on our extensive experience helping states and counties turn adopted policy into functioning systems that help people, and our observations of the practices that have produced good results, Alluma recommends states and counties actively prioritize investing in and focusing on addressing four challenges.

Challenge: Delivering services without in-person interaction
Best Practice: Modernize service delivery

  • Use low or no touch service delivery like telephonic or electronic signatures and electronic data sources over applicant-provided documentation.
  • Leverage state investments in digital information and communication technologies for telehealth, communication and collaboration tools, and/or cloud infrastructure.
  • Continue use of telephonic interviews.
  • Use alternative methods to deliver income assistance to the unbanked population like EBT or debit cards.

Challenge: Unaligned application and eligibility processes across programs and reliance on paper
Best Practice: Reuse data

  • Implement state flexibility to share data already allowed under federal rules.
  • Increase use of existing electronic data sources at initial eligibility determination as well as at recertification or renewal to verify eligibility rather than requiring paper documentation.
  • Clarify in policy and procedures that laws such as HIPAA do not necessarily prohibit health and social services agencies from sharing data for the purpose of an eligibility determination.
  • Obtain explicit consent from applicants to share their data to determine eligibility for multiple programs.
  • Create a data hub or repository that all agencies can access if current systems cannot easily share data.

Challenge: Current performance metrics emphasize regulatory compliance over program outcomes
Best Practice: Re-envision success

  • Measure administrative efficiency by the number of approved applications completed, over total number of applications received.
  • Measure impacts of data-sharing on applicant burden, administrative costs, and application processing times.
  • Analyze application denial data to determine the number of procedural denials, identify ways to reduce the number of avoidable denials, and measure the resulting value of administrative efficiency.
  • Analyze costs and benefits of investments in fraud prevention, detection, and investigation.

Challenge: Quickly scaling up to meet increased demand efficiently, effectively, equitably, and transparently
Best Practice: Modernize government procurement and contracting

  • Incentivize wider adoption of inclusive procurement practices like contracting equity programs.
  • Use scoring criteria to reward vendor collaborations.
  • Require agency stakeholder involvement in purchasing planning, decision-making, and contracting.
  • Revise contract requirements to hold vendors more accountable to achieve agencies’ desired outcomes, such as tying payments to outcomes not just completion of work.
  • Require human-centered design in all phases of business solution projects.

Read the full policy brief

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