Time to Learn Our Lesson: The Opportunities from the COVID-19 Pandemic to Enable State and Local Governments to Work Better for the People they Serve

Stan Soloway | Originally posted on the American Public Human Services Association

Americans are finally starting to see there may be a light at the end of the tunnel after a long year of grappling with the impact of the pandemic. President Biden is pushing initiatives to get 70% of American adults at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 4, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is lifting mask mandates for those who are fully vaccinated (in most instances). Americans can’t wait to go “back to normal;” but it is essential that the new normal take the lessons of the pandemic (and there are many) and actually learn from and act on them to change our government systems and public benefit programs for the better.

Since the earliest days of the crisis, CAMI has been calling for government reform and innovation to not only better handle the challenges of the pandemic but to improve government service to its citizens for years into the future. Now is the time to modernize government, including but certainly not limited to its technology capacity, while also making it more accountable and innovative.

Lessons Observed During the Pandemic

Our supply chains were not prepared. Food insecurity in the United States has long been an issue that has been swept under the rug. Few have recognized the challenges of ensuring the effectiveness of our emergency nutrition programs, even when not dealing with historic unemployment and pandemic-driven supply chain disruptions. Across the country, food banks struggled to keep up with increasing demand and limited supply.

Our public benefit systems faced significant challenges in keeping up with demand. Across the nation, citizens applying for unemployment benefits were frequently met with long wait times for a representative who could answer questions and, most importantly, solve problems. Far too many claimants who were able to apply for unemployment have waited months to receive those benefits. Similar challenges emerged elsewhere as well, including with access to food and other services such as Pandemic EBT. The challenges with access to SNAP programs were multi-faceted, often times requiring government at state and local levels to go to extraordinary lengths to meet the demands.

The government wasn’t properly equipped. Outdated state and federal government systems and technology simply couldn’t handle the dramatic increase in need for assistance of all kinds for people of all ages. Moreover, the business processes that underpin the technology are stale and outdated and further inhibited efforts to innovate “on the fly.” But only some programs (i.e., UI) were granted the kinds of flexibility needed to deal with the crisis. Others continued to operate largely as usual with some heroic, but limited, adjustments.

Lessons Learned

While we all hope the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation economic and public health crisis, it’s clear that our government could be operating better, on a daily basis, for all of its citizens, but most especially those who are most vulnerable and who rely on state and federal agencies for the services they need to survive.

So where has the government “learned” the lessons taught to them firsthand during the crisis?

The flexibility provided to states for the administration of their UI programs proved highly effective by virtually any metric. The nearly three dozen states that took advantage of the flexibilities brought service wait times down dramatically and significantly improved overall program performance. This strongly suggests that those flexibilities should be made permanent and extended to other programs, prominently including SNAP. We have the “proof of concept.” To do anything other than extend the authorities that drove such performance improvements would be a travesty.

Moreover, too many programs have traditionally been hamstrung by arcane rules and barriers to optimizing efficiency and effectiveness. In the case of UI programs, the latitude given states included the authority to meet capability gaps through the use of competitive contracts rather than relying solely on all-too-often slow and unresponsive public personnel systems. Further, knowing that the pandemic surge was temporary, states also recognized the significant cost differences between a temporal versus permanent workforce. After all, many states were already struggling with budget uncertainty and shortfalls even prior to the crisis, and this flexibility allowed them to hire the support they needed to handle increased demand without having to make the tremendous long-term investments that hiring permanent FTEs would require. Dozens of states took advantage of these flexibilities and quickly demonstrated the capacity to handle far more claims and eligibility determinations. The combination of the ability to quickly surge capacity and meet demand in real time without that fixed long-term cost proved to be a win-win. There is no reason this flexibility shouldn’t be made permanent for UI and implemented for other public assistance programs, including SNAP and Medicaid. Let states innovate in the ways they think best suit THEIR needs and THEIR environment, provided that such innovation is implemented within an immutable set of guardrails, that ensure and can document better service to beneficiaries as well as enhanced program performance and transparency.

Putting an emphasis on investments in modernizing technology. In the most recent iteration of COVID-19 relief, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), billions of dollars were set aside for IT modernization efforts, whether through the $2 billion provided for UI program integrity, funding to modernize the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or for general government technology improvements through the Technology Modernization Fund. Additionally, new guidance to states from the Treasury Department for utilizing relief funds specifically allows states to use funds to “build their internal capacity to successfully implement economic relief programs, with investments in data analysis, targeted outreach, technology infrastructure, and impact evaluations.” This is a clear recognition that in response to the fact that state and federal government technology struggled to keep up during the pandemic, with the ARP, more funding than ever before has been made available to agencies across the board. But let’s be clear—no amount of technology modernization will itself optimize the operations of public assistance absent a major commitment to cross-cutting process re-engineering. Indeed, the key to optimizing the use of these funds lies in the willingness and ability of government at all levels, led by the federal government, to open the strategic aperture, break down longstanding data and operational silos, and take advantage of contemporary technology coupled with real and impactful changes to each program’s business policies and practices.

Where More Work is Needed

There is certainly more work that can, and should, be done to make government work better for the people.

Authorizing Permanent Staffing Flexibility Options
It should be made clear where guidance allows for “building internal capacity” that the term itself is all encompassing. “Internal capacity” can and should be achieved through a range of common-sense solutions, including the use of reputable contractors or not-for-profit partners, held to strong accountability standards. It’s time for us to focus on the outcomes we all desire—ensuring that beneficiaries get the timely benefits they deserve and need, while also ensuring the integrity of the programs themselves. Assuming there is one solution or strategy defies both logic and reality.

That’s also why we have argued that the same flexibility that Congress provided to states in administering their UI programs should be extended to other programs. As CAMI has continued to note, food banks struggled to keep up with demand for food, but because of arcane federal rules were unable to help facilitate applications for SNAP benefits for the most vulnerable.

Use Electronic Data to Determine Eligibility
Substantial work also needs to be done to streamline access to and use of data in providing government services. Struggling Americans are forced to go through multiple processes that require much of the same information, to get assistance from multiple programs. While this problem was highlighted during the pandemic, it has been an ongoing challenge for governments throughout the past decades. For example, USDA prohibits states from using the data they receive from the Healthcare.gov datahub for SNAP eligibility determinations. Likewise, President Biden has already directed that agencies prioritize ways in which to better utilize data for the benefit of the American people. The opportunities to do so in public services is unprecedented. In fact, across the benefits programs there is a massive amount of data available but mostly unused. Clearly, more cross-agency use of data combined with some degree of operational blending of closely related programs, offers incredible opportunities for improved service delivery, program integrity, and efficiencies..

At the end of the day, it is most important that we do not forget the challenges and failures the pandemic brought to light and that we take concrete action to address them. We’ve said it over and over again—and will say it here yet one more time: our history is full of examples of lessons observed but never really learned. This is the time to change that paradigm in a big way.


Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:   Part One   |   Part Two   |   Part Three

About the Author

Stan Soloway
Board Chairman, CAMI
Stan Soloway is the Board Chairman of the Center for Accountability, Modernization, and Innovation (CAMI). CAMI is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) dedicated to advocating for innovation and common-sense solutions in federal programs that directly serve citizens.