Digital Benefits Coalition Launches to Identify Solutions to the Unemployment Insurance Crisis

Open source digital infrastructure can facilitate faster, smarter, more secure public benefits programs
Blog Post
Nov. 23, 2020

The twin health and economic crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed critical weaknesses in the technology that governments use to power public benefits programs. These systems have been pushed beyond the breaking point.

After Congress passed the CARES Act, seventy million Americans waited weeks to receive stimulus payments and over 250,000 endured 70+ day delays before their unemployment insurance checks arrived. Populations on the margins of society who were often in greatest need of assistance were frequently the people hurt most by these delays.

When technology fails, policy fails, and Americans can’t afford another unemployment meltdown. The DIGI team at New America brought together the Digital Benefits Coalition and other experts in civic technology to discuss how the next administration can harness innovation to deliver smarter benefits solutions for America’s families.

Read our one-pager about the coalition and how digital technology can improve the unemployment insurance system.

After a brief introduction by DIGI Director Tomicah Tillemann, Day One Project Director Dan Correa introduced a new research paper with recommendations on how to remake the unemployment system. Dr. Tillemann then led a conversation with members of the newly formed Digital Benefits Coalition including Georgetown University Beeck Center Fellow and former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria, and Benefits Data Trust CEO Trooper Sanders. Together, the panel explored how open source digital infrastructure could save time and resources, help individuals access the benefits they deserve, and enhance the resilience of American communities in the face of future crises.

Some key takeaways from the panel include:

  • Many unemployment insurance applications and disbursement systems focus on preventing ineligible claim approval instead of easing access to struggling families. The current rules not only keep Americans from accessing social programs designed to protect them, but also fail to address the real threat from cyber criminals who steal public funds.
  • Governments do not need to build technology solutions from scratch. Leaders in the private sector, as well as civic technology organizations like the U.S. Digital Service, Code for America, and 18F have deep experience in solving challenges affecting public benefit distribution such as identity verification.
  • The federal government can play an important role in creating standards to make systems interoperable, and writing open source code that states can adopt to jump-start their technology development.
  • Investments in these systems are not only critical during the pandemic, but will continue to be a lifeline for many Americans whose economic livelihoods may be disrupted by emerging technologies and automation.

The event’s second panel focused on how effective public administration relies on a combination of strong policies and technology systems, and began to identify solutions to the unemployment insurance crisis. The session was moderated by Director of Data + Digital at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center Cori Zarek, who was joined by Founder and CEO of Foresight Resilience Strategies Adam Bobrow, Unemployment insurance team lead at U.S. Digital Response Alyssa Levitz, and Senior Program Manager at the New Practice Lab & PIT University Network Alberto Rodriguez.

The group uncovered a number of key actions the next administration could take to alleviate the strain on the unemployment insurance delivery system:

  • Issue an executive order that would direct state labor departments to route federal funds towards modernizing technology systems that underpin unemployment benefits, and issue standards to ensure that systems are open source and interoperable.
  • Shift the mentality around risk mitigation in public sector technology. Instead of focusing on preventing fraud from claimants, government programs should reorient technology development towards expanding accessibility and improving identity systems to thwart cyber attacks.
  • Double down on user-centered design principles and focus on creating systems that make it easy for public servants to administer programs to constituents. This will re-center technology development around the biggest challenges in unemployment benefit systems, like the current massive backlog of cases.

The Digital Benefits Coalition, including our New America colleagues with the New Practice Lab and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Day One Project, and US Digital Response are all working to develop cost effective, efficient, accessible digital systems to power the public sector. Please take advantage of the reports, resources, and research circulated during our event (list below) to help us advance this goal. Also, please consider filling out the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation’s Public Interest Technology Survey for professionals working in the field of public interest tech. The deadline for this 10 minute survey is November 30, 2020.