Online government services: who benefits and who suffers?

A new Executive Decree will bring more digital services online in a bid to streamline how people access them. But some experts warn the move could create problems for poor and disadvantaged communities.

Last month, 17 government agencies were told to “modernize” the way they deliver dozens of essential services. The Biden administration has said it hopes to reduce what it calls a “time tax” that Americans pay to get things done.

Changes include the ability for Americans to go online to renew their passports or apply for certain benefits instead of going to local government offices. These efforts will build on the recent modernization of the Veterans Administration and some of its programs.

Going forward, the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture and other agencies will begin to change the way programs are accessed and services are delivered. The White House has promised to transparently track and report on the quality of modernization efforts.

Experts warn that while efforts to make services more easily accessible through technology show great promise, changes must be undertaken with caution so as not to further aggravate a well-known digital divide and put people who cannot -be without access to technology or who do not have access to it. I don’t know how to use it with even greater disadvantage.

“Making life easier for people seeking government assistance is a worthy goal. We have some concerns. As you know, the devil is always in the details,” said Glenn Bailey, Executive Director of Carrefour Urban Center in Salt Lake City, which includes a food bank and thrift store, as well as staff who help coordinate advocacy activities.

“The first problem is the digital divide,” Bailey added. “Often when we facilitate the ability to do things online, we make it more difficult – or impossible – to do things in person or in writing. Lots of people are trying to get by with cell phones, but the forms are difficult to be completed on a phone.

Others fear that the burden on programs will increase.

“I’m generally in favor of streamlining benefit programs and using technology, but there are downsides,” said Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute researcher in poverty studies. “When I worked for New York City Social Services, we moved to an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application. People are much more likely to apply for SNAP when it’s online. , including those who are not eligible or do not intend to follow This has created a lot of back-end work for the agency with little return – more work for these agencies requires more money public.

Yet she also sees a setback. She said that submitting documents and verifying information are activities that should all be electronic, just as the administration should benefit from it. People should be able to check their electronic benefit transfer balance online, which some places already do.

What would the command do

In a recent conference call with reporters, Neera Tanden, one of President Joe Biden’s senior advisers, said that to streamline processes, the administration looked at “points of greatest friction for people with their government — filing taxes, applying for Social Security benefits, waiting in TSA lines — and focused on ways to reduce that friction.

In one Release of the White House Announcing the executive order, Biden called the move “a decisive move to promote fiscal stewardship.” He added: “We have to prove that democracy still works, that our government still works and can live up to our people.”

The statement said the order “creates a supported cross-jurisdictional service delivery process that aligns with the times that matter most in people’s lives – like turning 65, having a child or applying for a small business loan.” .

Here are some of the processes the White House says will change:

  • Retirement. Retirees can apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits online in a streamlined process.
  • Declaration and management of taxes. Filers can schedule a customer support call online and use online tools to file or manage refunds.
  • Survive the disaster. The 25 million individuals, families and businesses affected each year by a federally recognized natural disaster could file claims and provide photos of the damage directly from their cellphones.
  • Travel-related change. Renew passports and benefit from shorter security lines with technology that simplifies the process.
  • Student debt. Better manage student loans, including an online payment portal for state-funded loans, public service loan cancellation requests, among others.
  • Access veteran benefits and information.
  • Obtain services. Enroll in programs that benefit low-income and vulnerable populations, recertify income status, and connect more easily between programs.
  • Apply online for Small Business Administration programs, including agricultural loans
  • Medical care. Use more and better telehealth options.

The digital divide

the Close the Gap Foundation highlights some of the challenges created by a digital divide, a situation in which low-income or older people may find it difficult to use programs and services that rely on technology they may not own or don’t know how to use.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this divide into stark relief as remote learning has become necessary and schools and communities have rushed to provide the technology to those who did not have access to it. It wasn’t just a matter of not having some sort of computer. Millions of people also lacked internet access. The Close the Gap Foundation said as many as 1 in 4 students lacked reliable devices or adequate internet connections.

The foundation said that during the pandemic, children from low-income families were 10 times less likely to engage in remote learning than households with annual incomes above $25,000 per year.

A Pew Trust Report in September, noted discrepancies when counting the number of people disadvantaged by the digital divide. An FCC estimate puts it at 14.5 million. But the report notes that the BroadbandNow research group discovered 42 million. And that Microsoft calculated 157 million.

Pew reported that it’s “even fuzzier how much the monthly cost of broadband subscription deters Americans from having a home connection or keeps them on slow, outdated connections that render video in streaming, document sharing and other common tasks extremely slow or impossible”.

In April 2020, Deseret News highlighted how the Millard School District parked a Wi-Fi-equipped school bus in a rural neighborhood to give families access to the internet. Across the country, reports abound of students doing homework in cars parked outside public libraries or businesses with open Wi-Fi connections.

Even now the Federal Communications Commission says that “nearly 15 million school children do not have internet access at home, creating a nationwide homework gap that is left unaddressed could become a lack of opportunity”. Administered by the FCC Affordable Connectivity Program is offering eligible households a $30 discount on broadband, while those living on tribal land can save $75.

People have been affected in many other ways as well. New America reported that healthcare is increasingly dependent on broadband. Among those of the UnitedHealthGroup, the number of telehealth visits Pink from 1.2 million in 2019 to 34 million in 2020.

Simply getting the COVID-19 vaccine usually requires making an appointment online.

New America reported that white adults have better access than blacks, who have better access than Hispanics. Native Americans are among the most disadvantaged.

Find face-to-face help.

While acknowledging the benefits that digital services offer, experts warn that face-to-face interaction isn’t expected to go away.

Rachidi said some program participants have significant issues that can be resolved by working with someone in person. “For example, staff may uncover issues of domestic violence or child abuse and neglect. When there is no personal interaction, these issues are uncovered. Opportunities to connect benefit recipients to jobs or other supports could be missed if everything is online or digitized,” she said.

Bailey worries that streamlining is combining things that are better left separate. “That could mean I only have to answer 13 questions for SNAP, but because the app is combined with Medicaid, it takes 60 questions — whether I’m applying for Medicaid or not,” he said. .

When the government relies on long online forms, “people abandon applications and the government limits other application options to direct people to online platforms. This means that some of the most vulnerable are left behind without a social worker to help them,” he noted.

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroad Urban Center, pushed Utah to shorten its request for public assistance. He describes himself as a “big fan” of the executive order for its potential to make it easier for people to apply for government programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

Currently, Utah’s online application for the programs can take up to two hours, he said, noting that “state officials say the federal government continues to ask them add questions and make the questions more difficult to understand. This executive order should remove that excuse.

But he, too, sees potential problems. Tibbitts said the forms aren’t optimized for filling out using smartphones, even though up to 80% of participating individuals who apply for and use Medicaid and food stamps complete the application and submit documents online. using smartphones. While Utah is said to be changing that, he said the internet moved to mobile devices before the state’s last major system upgrade.

It’s not a Utah-centric problem, Tibbitts added. States vary in how they have optimized their forms and how they currently accept them.

“Many of our homeless clients cannot use the internet at all, but for others their phone is the only reliable internet access they have,” he said.

Ashley C. Reynolds