“A crisis is also an opportunity to see what we weren’t seeing before”

The harsh light of the Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated a lot of things that we weren’t seeing so clearly before: who government aid reaches and who it leaves out, and the gaps embedded in the policy making process.

The harsh light of the Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated a lot of things that we weren’t seeing so clearly before.  While a virus doesn’t discriminate in choosing its victims, the data on who has taken ill and who has not recovered shows that African Americans and Latinos have been heavily impacted, which in turn highlights a host of underlying disparities. These are communities more likely to be among those still going to work, often without adequate protection, commuting on public transit, and living with chronic conditions and inadequate health coverage. This combination of factors has had devastating outcomes.  

We can also see disparities in the way Americans are able to access the financial help that Congress has made available to individuals, families and businesses. The New York Times reported that only 12 percent of minority business owners who had applied for aid had received what they asked for.  By comparison, in a Census Bureau survey of the general population of small businesses who had asked for loans, 38 percent said that they had received one.  

We can see similar disparities in the way government aid is reaching – or not reaching – individuals and families who need it.  In April, my colleagues Tara McGuinness and Gabriel Zucker posted their findings that tens of millions of people who Congress intended to help with the CARES Act were unlikely to see aid any time soon, if at all. The IRS has made some important adjustments since Tara and Gabriel’s research was published, but the basic premise still holds: even when a badly divided political class tries to help, government can be devastatingly bad at delivering assistance to Americans who need it most.  

In their excellent piece for Fast Company on why the CARES Act’s implementation was a  mess, my colleagues Hana Schank and Tara McGuinness make the point that the policy process itself is a big part of the problem. As I see it, these problems fall into two categories: sins of commission and sins of omission. When a government redesigns a benefit program with the aim of making it harder for people to access, that is a sin of commission. In a crisis, this sin has a cascading effect like a rock slide. Even though there is consensus that we should be delivering aid quickly, the systems have been designed to slow people down and keep them out. Which they do effectively. As a result, millions are going without help that they badly need, and the economy is not benefitting from the dollars that policymakers counted on being spent.

Sins of omission are even more frustrating because they seem easily fixable, but are stubbornly resistant to change. Policymakers simply aren’t asking the right questions when they draft their policies in the first place. I say this lovingly as someone who spent the last three decades as a policymaker. We are still using antiquated ways of designing the laws that we pass, based on existing programs and strategies that we perceive as having worked in the past.  We’re not nearly as good as we should be at finding out what people actually need and understanding the circumstances of their lives well enough to design programs that will actually reach them.  

Thanks to the leadership of organizations like Code for America and companies like Civilla, who teamed up with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service to transform the state’s painfully cumbersome benefits application process, public interest technologists are beginning to make strides on delivery of existing programs.  By spending time with residents and caseworkers to better understand the pain points of the existing process, Civilla and Code for America were able to design a new approach which cut the application time from over 45 minutes to less than ten, with better results for the applicants.  This is heartening progress, but  so far, this important work is focused on delivering programs once they are brought into existence. As the policy response to Covid-19 makes painfully clear, we aren’t yet bringing delivery thinking into the design of policy itself.  

What would it look like to change that? Congress is currently considering multiple efforts to get resources to workers through their employers. Some of these proposals rely on a newly created Employee Retention Tax Credit, which was created in the CARES Act to encourage businesses affected by the economic crisis to keep employees on their payroll by providing 50% of up to $10,000 in wages. These are innovative ideas, designed to bypass an unemployment system which has broken down in multiple states. They could be made even better by spending a moment investigating whether and how the tax credit to be expanded on is working. There are a number of longstanding tax credits aimed at businesses; a brief conversation with even a handful of employers could yield important insights about their experience with them, whether the application processes work, and whether they have the intended outcomes. It wouldn’t take much to walk legislators through a typical tax credit application process alongside an employer, and that could yield useful insights in drafting the next round of legislation. The more we know about whether businesses have heard of the employee retention tax credit, what their experience has been attempting to access it, and whether it had the intended effect, the more effective we are likely to be when we expand it.  

None of this is rocket science – it’s a matter of adopting some of the strategies of user-centered design as lawmakers develop legislation. The challenge is not so much a lack of will among policymakers as it is that they are accustomed to a different set of tools, one that relies on more traditional constituent contacts and the trade associations that represent employers or other constituencies. Like any institution steeped in tradition, Congress is slow to adopt new techniques, and a crisis is a challenging time to experiment with new ways of operating.

But a crisis is also an opportunity to see what we weren’t seeing before, and to take steps to fix it. Just as the Covid-19 crisis is exposing grim inequities in who is affected and who is getting helped, it is also exposing grave deficiencies in our ability to deliver that help.  We have better tools, and have seen inspiring examples of what happens when we use them to deliver services. It’s time to start using them to make policy.