By Jessica Cruz and Vishal Trehan for New Jersey State Policy Lab
Why isn’t the participation rate for the government’s welfare programs at 100%? Why do only 82% of those eligible under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) receive benefits? Given the program differences across the country, some states have participation rates as low as 55%. Seen through the lens of administrative burden, citizens’ interactions with the state for availing social-welfare benefits reveal significant learning, psychological, and compliance costs (Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey 2015; Herd, 2015). Filling out long, complicated forms, self-ascertaining eligibility, scheduling issues, and the expectation to continually demonstrate one’s eligibility are just a few of the barriers that keep people from receiving benefits. The application process for public assistance programs is long and complicated, and it sends the message that applicants do not deserve benefits. Research suggests that barriers and costs are not only associated with claiming but also redeeming benefits; these costs, in turn, discourage participation in programs (Barnes, 2021). Importantly, citizens with lower human capital face more significant burdens, thus reinforcing inequality (Christensen et al., 2020).
In general, digital government is seen to be promoting efficiency, accessibility, transparency, and responsiveness (Lips, 2019). The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in providing government services has been seen as a way to reduce burdens on citizens and enhance their experience. However, research suggests that this is not always the case. Several factors need to be considered to understand why digitalization of government services reduces burdens for some citizens while increasing them for others. For example, the lack of a digital-ID places burdens on foreign workers applying for government benefits (Jaakkola, 2018). Research on administrative burdens in the context of automated government services suggests that atypical or “un-automatable” cases are at the highest risk of experiencing burdens (Larsson, 2021).
An important dimension of burden in the case of digital services is that of digital literacy. A Danish study found that ICT skills are necessary for carrying out online tasks associated with public benefits applications (Madsen and Kræmmergaard, 2016). Grönlund et al. (2007) found that while the switch to digital reduces burdens for some services, additional burdens are created in the case of complicated services, with citizens requiring new digital skills. Complex digital self-services, for example, can reduce psychological costs but increase learning costs by requiring citizens to learn and complete tasks previously handled by caseworkers (Madsen et al., 2022). Thus, those who do not have the requisite level of digital literacy will incur significant costs and are at risk of being excluded from government welfare programs such as SNAP.
The U.S. government has started focusing on user experience in service delivery. President Biden issued an executive order in December 2021 to modernize government programs and transform the federal customer experience and service delivery. The government is now requiring its programs to improve user experience in order to reduce administrative burdens, increase accessibility, and rebuild trust in the government. A new government agency, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), is using design and technology to improve service delivery to the people. For example, Medicare applicants previously had to go through hundreds of plans to pick out the best one. A new process pulls individuals’ prescription data to help users pick the best plan, reducing the complexity and stress of picking a plan.
However, addressing the issue of administrative burden in the digital administrative state requires a radical change in the way citizen-state interactions are designed. With the digitalization and automation of services and the consequent reduction in face-to-face interactions, vulnerable citizens run the risk of losing out on the empathy of public servants since they cannot engage with digital bureaucracies (Ranchordas, 2021). The government must acknowledge the inadequacies of new digital systems and citizens’ skill levels and simplify and streamline different aspects of digital services (for example, reducing document uploads and standardizing forms). The goal should be to make a user-friendly application process that encourages people to claim and use their legitimate and rightful welfare benefits. The government can transform its welfare programs and better serve the public with the help of pragmatic use of technology and well-designed interventions.