Obtain equitable access to digital services
COVID-19 has changed the model of customer experience and service delivery, seemingly overnight. Digital solutions quickly took center stage, as we’ve seen many companies overhaul their service models to maintain engagement with a dispersed customer base, isolated and largely reluctant to interact in person.
One of the biggest users of this new digitally-driven service delivery model was the federal government. When I was in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the leadership of the Federal Director of Information, we were tasked with guiding agencies as they rapidly accelerated their digital transformation in the context of a pandemic which had just turned our way of life upside down. Agencies had to balance the trade-off between speed and accuracy when deploying solutions to support the American public. When responding to a crisis, there is often little consideration for who might be negatively impacted or left behind, as solution decisions often center on maximizing coverage.
This is one of the key issues that the White House Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Restore Confidence in Government must tackle head-on as the government continues this rapid transition to digital solutions. The government cannot talk about customer experience without considering equity and inclusion, and the government’s success with this TO will be to ensure that new services deployed also open the door to equitable access to healthcare. instead of blocking out those who need it most.
The traditional model of identity verification has long had its challenges, with the pandemic accelerating the problem of legacy technology that relies on credit histories used by government agencies. Many Americans have struggled to access the benefit programs and urgent help they need. At the same time, there have been numerous instances where agencies have been unable to detect and mitigate fraud, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s important to remember that approximately 45 million people in the United States aged 18 and over have no credit. For older identity verification systems, this group cannot be scored or has no credit history and is effectively excluded from the system despite the best intentions of the government.
If we are serious about equity and inclusion, government must evolve from legacy systems that have been the status quo for some time. Understanding the factors that contribute to the denial of services to people due to identity verification issues will help the government develop a better approach to identity verification which can be the centerpiece of what the new EO accomplishes. One idea is to do away with verification processes that use knowledge-based authentication as a way to determine a person’s identity once and for all.
Another would be to move away from the common practice of more rigorous verification processes and instead adopt a more risk-based approach and a scoring for identity that includes risk thresholds to introduce unnecessary friction when people are trying to access public services.
By modernizing its approach to identity verification, the government can avoid traditional pitfalls that waste valuable time and effort, hamper customer experience and digital inclusion.
The Biden administration is committed to providing “an effective, fair and accountable government that meets the needs of its people.” To some, this may seem ambitious at best without a clear strategy on how the government will achieve this goal. The truth is, it is possible to make the overall experience more fair and inclusive, but it will take a re-prioritization to tackle head-on the challenges we have in legacy identity verification systems.
This will require a whole government strategy. In my experience, the OMB is best positioned to lead this effort by using the CIO, data officers and privacy boards to bring together the necessary stakeholders to create an appropriate manual to update government standards. verification of identity, develop processes and capabilities that work in government agencies, and ensure better sharing of information used in identity verification transactions, as discussed in M-19-17.
It must also be recognized that there is no miracle solution to all digital identity problems, nor equality for that matter. The challenges of verifying identity are complex, and almost every use case has a bit of nuance to consider. Solutions must be dynamic and more easily able to adapt to an ever-changing operational landscape. The pandemic has shown us that it is unrealistic to expect that we can always meet in person those who are excluded from online channels.
Data should be at the center of decision-making when agencies tackle these challenges – not the “Please rate your experience 1 to 5” data type. Government should consider disparate impact and bias assessments from the outset when it comes to identity solutions to confirm that they are successfully filling the equity and inclusion gaps. When we don’t use data, solutions are created based on assumptions and often lead to a public backlash that thwarts any promise of innovation.
The challenges we face with identity verification and digital access did not start because of the pandemic – they are systemic. A lot of it comes down to the very nature of how some of our legacy processes are set up for service delivery. However, we must not let past performance dictate our future. It is possible to tackle this challenge head on, but only if we are prepared to open our eyes and make it a priority to get it right.
Jordan Burris is the Senior Director of Public Sector Product Market Strategy at Socure and the former Chief of Staff in the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer.