7 reflections on California’s report into its unemployment benefits system

In September, the Governor of California's ‘strike team’ published an assessment and recommendations for the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD). California has delivered several impressive pieces of work with the help of its digital team including alpha.ca.gov; covid19.ca.gov – a world-class response to the pandemic, as well as making their coronavirus modelling and data public. However, like many governments, it has struggled to scale and adapt older systems to the pressures of the pandemic – hence the need for a ‘strike team’.

The report is California’s latest example of working in the open. That’s important. California isn’t the only state to face many of these issues, and by sharing their work, Yolanda Richardson and Jen Pahlka (the strike team leaders) have set an example for others to follow and given those others a head start.

The report was written during the pandemic and takes the fall-out into consideration. It recommends:

  1. A set of actions to help get California’s unemployment benefits system through the coronavirus backlog of claims.
  2. How to reform the benefits system in the longer term.

Public Digital’s expertise

I recently joined Public Digital from the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions. I worked on the design and delivery of Universal Credit (a payment to help with living costs), from 2013 to 2020. Having lived and breathed benefits systems for the last 7 years I found California’s report fascinating. Here are 7 suggestions that build on – or could be added to – the longer term plan based on my experience.

Things to build on in the longer term

Some of the recommendations that the report puts forward are ideal for an emergency situation – there's been a different set of rules during the pandemic and the report acknowledges that really well. As EDD begins to get a handle on its backlog of claims it's worth thinking about how the recommendations can be developed further and delivered to ensure that the unemployment benefits system is able to deliver for the future.

1. Real change isn’t just about technology

Unemployment benefit systems are not about the technology, they’re about people – both claimants and the operations staff. The report rightly recognises and highlights the need to change operational policies and legislation. In my experience, integrating policy and operations colleagues into a Digital team and helping them to see the value and opportunities of working in the open in an iterative and user-led way is the best way to deliver policy changes.

As the pandemic took hold in the UK, the reason Universal Credit paid out on time was not just down to a technical system which could be iterated on and scaled easily– it was because the operational teams were used to frequent iteration and they were able to pivot to new ways of working quickly and easily.

2. Users need clear, concise information at the right time – and know where to find it

The report acknowledges that processing benefits is a logistics and workflow problem. It talks extensively about the huge number of phone calls, emails and letters received from claimants when making and maintaining a claim. The report also says claimants have online accounts which can be a good opportunity to provide more information safely to users.

The more opaque a service is, the more questions will arise, the more mistakes will be made and the more contact there will be with operations people. To avoid this, every web page, letter, email and sms message from department to claimant needs content design expertise to make sure that all communication is clear and accurate as well as joined up. This gives time back to operations people so they can get on with processing claims.

3. Online services aren’t always simpler or quicker to use for everyone

Building an online service shifts more of the responsibility onto the claimant – and that will mean that a reasonable proportion of them will need more help. The report acknowledges that English as a second language is a major challenge for EDD, but other barriers to access exist too. They include physical or mental health challenges, low literacy, as well as users who are vulnerable due to circumstances such as victims of domestic abuse, sufferers of drug addiction and care leavers. We should design with this in mind from the beginning. And never treat vulnerable user groups as edge cases.

4. Use levers to influence decision makers

The report highlights the complexity of the service for operational staff. Training can take up to 3 years, and the system limits what staff are allowed to do for security reasons. This complexity takes the experienced staff away from meeting claimants’ needs. Some of that complexity could be solved through legislation or other decision-making bodies, as well as working closely with operational and security colleagues to understand where the risks really lie.

5. Security must be embedded, not an afterthought

Fraud and error is hard to manage, and as noted in the report can lead to teams being overly cautious and developing sub-optimal processes and decision making. Much like with policy and operations, integrating cyber security, fraud and error experts into your multi-disciplinary team can help everyone understand risk better. Security should be embedded in the design of your service – it should never be bolted on at the end as an afterthought.

6. It’s dangerous to always prioritise new users over existing users

New claims often feel like the biggest source of pain and effort for operational staff (and that’s probably true during a pandemic) but changes to circumstances can be just as problematic over time. For example, every time a claimant has a new address, has another child, gets a pay rise or cut, some communication is needed between the claimant and the service. Changes of circumstance may lead to changes to a claim, and each update contributes to the backlog of work. The report doesn’t specifically flag this but it’s good to keep in mind that when building a service, it is dangerous to only prioritise new claims when most people's lives are constantly changing and evolving.

7. Changes made in a crisis must be reviewed

The report recommends that during the pandemic, being proactive and ringing claimants offers reassurance and helps reduce the number of incoming calls. Something we learnt on Universal Credit, was that you rarely reach a claimant on the first phone call – it may take 2 or 3 goes to be successful (they were often busy or didn’t have the documents needed to hand). Pre-arranged calls based on when the claimant is available and prepared will likely lead to less rework. It’s important to keep reviewing the changes you’ve made in a crisis situation as you return to a new normal.

Paving the way for reform

This report is a great piece of work by the whole strike team and it’s positive to see such a large bureaucracy take a pragmatic approach to improvement. With Jen Pahlka and Yolanda Richardson leading the assessment and recommendations it’s no surprise that the report recognises the importance of:

  1. Putting users first – throughout the report the needs of users inform the recommendations such as improving the sites usability on a mobile and improving document upload.
  2. Prioritising the backlog of claims by quickly creating a web form to capture new claims and easing the pressure for operational staff.
  3. Showing and delivering with more agile ways of working.
  4. Processes, policies and people – they are just as important as big technical changes.

The report makes clear the potential for improvement and the reforms that are needed. Early reports on progress are promising, and we hope to see the deeper reforms taking hold soon.

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