Hitting the Books: How SNAP's digital services became an online quagmire

We were promised affordable groceries, we received a 212-question survey that didn't work on mobile.

hapabapa via Getty Images

Nobody said dragging one of the largest government bureaucracies to ever exist into the digital era was going to be easy but the sheer scale and myriad variety of failings we have seen in recent decades have had very real, and near universally negative, consequences for the Americans reliant on these social systems. One need look no further than at how SNAP — the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — has repeatedly fallen short in its mission to help feed low-income Americans. Jennifer Pahlka, founder and former executive director of Code for America, takes an unflinching view at the many missteps and groupthink slip-ups committed by our government in the pursuit of bureaucratic efficiency in Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better.

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Metropolitan Books

Excerpted from Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better by Jennifer Pahlka. Published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Pahlka. All rights reserved.

Stuck in Peanut Butter

The lawmakers who voted to cut the federal workforce in the 1990s, just as digital technology was starting to truly reshape our lives, wanted smaller government. But starving government of know-how, digital or otherwise, hasn’t made it shrink. It has ballooned it. Sure, there are fewer public servants, but we spend billions of dollars on satellite software that never goes to space, we pay vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars for basic web forms that don’t work, and we make applying for government services feel like the Inquisition. That’s the funny thing about small government: the things we do to get it — to limit government’s intrusion into our lives — have a habit of accomplishing the opposite.

Take, for example, an application for food stamps that requires answering 212 separate questions. That’s what Jake Solomon at Code for America discovered when he tried to find out why so few Californians in need enrolled in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Many of the questions were confusing, while others were oddly specific and seemed to assume the person applying was a criminal. “Have you or any member of your household ever been found guilty of trading SNAP benefits for drugs after September 22, 1996? Have you or any member of your household ever been found guilty of trading SNAP benefits for guns, ammunition, or explosives after September 22, 1996?” It would often take up to an hour for people to fill out the entire form. They couldn’t apply on a mobile phone; the application form, called MyBenefits CalWIN, didn’t work on mobile. Lots of the people Jake observed tried to complete the form on computers at the public library instead, but the library computers kicked you off after half an hour. You had to wait for your turn to come again and pick up where you left off.

SNAP is a federal program that states are responsible for administering. The smaller the jurisdiction in charge, the more likely that the program will be attuned to local needs and values. California, along with nine other states, has chosen to further devolve administration to its individual counties, putting the burden of managing client data on fifty-eight separate entities. To handle that burden, the counties (with the exception of Los Angeles) formed two consortia that pooled IT resources. When it became clear that clients should be able to apply online, each consortium then contracted for a single online application form to save money. It turned out to be quite expensive anyway: MyBenefits CalWIN, the form Jake studied, cost several million dollars to build. But at least that got divided across the eighteen counties in the consortium.

What those several million dollars had gotten them was another question. Jake and his Code for America colleagues published a “teardown” of the website, over a hundred screenshots of it in action, with each page marked up to highlight the parts that confused and frustrated the people trying to use it. (To be fair, the teardown also highlighted elements that were helpful to users; there were just far fewer of them.) The teardown was a powerful critique. It was noticed by anti-poverty advocates and the press alike, and the ways in which the counties were failing their clients started to get a lot of attention. Jake should not have been popular with the people responsible for MyBenefits CalWIN. Which was why he was surprised when HP, the vendor managing the website, invited him to a meeting of the consortium to present his work.

The meeting brought representatives from each of the counties to a business hotel in downtown Sacramento. It was only after Jake finished showing them his observations that he realized why he’d been invited. The HP representative at the meeting presented a variety of options for how the consortium might use its resources over the coming year, and then the county representatives began engaging in that hallmark of democracy: voting. One of the questions up for a vote was whether to engage some of HP’s contracted time to make MyBenefits CalWIN usable on a mobile phone. Fresh off Jake’s critique, that priority got the votes it needed to proceed. Jake had done the job he’d been invited to do without even knowing what it was.

What struck Jake about the process was not his success in convincing the county representatives. It was not that different from what Mary Ann had achieved when her recording of Dominic convinced the deputy secretary of the VA to let her team fix the health care application. The HP rep was interested in bringing to life for the county reps the burdens that applicants experienced. Jake was very good at doing that, and the rep had been smart to use him.

What Jake did find remarkable was the decision-making process. To him, it was clear how to decide the kinds of questions the group discussed that day. SNAP applicants were by definition low-income, and most low-income people use the web through their phones. So at Code for America, when Jake developed applications for safety-net benefits, he built them to work on mobile phones from the start. And when he and his team were trying to figure out the best way to phrase something, they came up with a few options that sounded simple and clear, and tested these options with program applicants. If lots of people stopped at some point when they filled out the form, it was a sign that that version of the instructions was confusing them. If some wording resulted in more applications being denied because the applicant misunderstood the question, that was another sign. Almost every design choice was, in effect, made by the users.

The counties, on the other hand, made those same choices by committee. Because each of the eighteen counties administers the SNAP program separately, the focus was on accommodating the unique business processes of each separate county and the many local welfare offices within the counties. It wasn’t that the county reps didn’t care about the experience of their users—their vote to start making MyBenefits CalWIN work on mobile phones was proof of that. But the process the consortium followed was not constructed to identify and address the needs of users. It had been set up to adjudicate between the needs of the counties. The result had been, for years, an experience for clients that was practically intolerable.

Ever since the founding of the United States, a core value for many has been restricting the concentration of government power. The colonists were, after all, rebelling against a monarchy. When power is concentrated in the hands of one person or one regime, the reasoning goes, we lose our liberty. We need to have some government, so we’ll have to trust some people to make some decisions, but best to make it hard for any one person to do anything significant, lest that person begin to act like a king. Best to make sure that any decisions require lots of different people to weigh in.

But as Jake saw, the way you get 212 questions on a form for food assistance is not concentrated power, it’s diffuse power. And diffuse power is not just an artifact of the complexities federalism can bring, with decisions delegated down to local government and then aggregated back up through mechanisms like the county consortia. The fear of having exercised too much power, and being criticized for it, is ever present for many public servants. The result is a compulsion to consult every imaginable stakeholder, except the ones who matter most: the people who will use the service.

A tech leader who made the transition from a consumer internet company to public service recently called me in frustration. He’d been trying to clarify roles on a new government project and had explained to multiple departments how important it would be to have a product manager, someone empowered to direct and absorb user research, understand both external and internal needs, and integrate all of it. The departments had all enthusiastically agreed. But when it came time to choose that person, each department presented my friend with a different name, sometimes several. There were more than a dozen in all.

He thought perhaps he was supposed to choose the product manager from among these names. But the department representatives explained that all these people would need to share the role of product manager, since each department had some stake in the product. Decisions about the product would be made by what was essentially a committee, something like the federal CIO Council that resulted in the ESB imperative. Members would be able to insist on what they believed their different departments needed, and no one would have the power to say no to anyone. Even without the complications of federalism, the project would still be doomed to exactly the kind of bloat that MyBenefits CalWIN suffered from.

This kind of cultural tendency toward power sharing makes sense. It is akin to saying this project will have no king, no arbitrary authority who might act imperiously. But the result is bloat, and using a bloated service feels intrusive and onerous. It’s easy to start seeing government as overreaching if every interaction goes into needless detail and demands countless hours.

Highly diffuse decision-making frameworks can make it very hard to build good digital services for the public. But they are rooted in laws that go back to long before the digital era.

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