Getting equitable access to digital services right

COVID-19 turned the model for customer experience and service delivery on its head, seemingly overnight. Digital solutions quickly took center stage as we saw many businesses overhaul their service models to maintain engagement with a customer base that was dispersed, isolated and largely averse to in-person interaction.

One of the largest adopters of this new digitally focused model of service delivery was the federal government. When I was at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Federal Chief Information Officer, we were tasked with guiding agencies as they rapidly accelerated their digital transformation against the backdrop of a pandemic that had just upended our way of life. Agencies had to balance the tradeoff of speed vs. accuracy as they rolled out 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 around maximizing coverage.

This is one of the main issues the White House Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government must tackle head-on as the government continues this rapid shift to digital solutions. Government cannot talk about customer experience without consideration of equity and inclusion, and critical to the government’s success with this EO will be ensuring that the new services deployed also open the door for equitable access instead of locking out those that need them the most.

The traditional model for verifying identity has long had its challenges, with the pandemic accelerating the problem of legacy technology that relies on credit history used by government agencies. Many Americans struggled to access benefit programs and the urgent assistance they needed. At the same time, there have been many cases where agencies were unable to detect and mitigate fraud, costing millions of dollars in taxpayer money. It is important to remember that approximately 45 million people in the U.S. aged 18+ are credit invisible. For legacy identity verification systems, this group either cannot be scored or have no credit bureau files and are effectively excluded from the system despite the best intentions of the government.

If we are serious about equity and inclusion, the government must evolve from the legacy systems that have been the status quo for some time. Understanding the factors which contribute to people being denied services because of identity verification issues will help the government develop a better approach to identity verification that 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 means for determining someone’s identity once and for all.

Another would involve moving away from making more rigorous verification processes common practice and instead adopting a more risk-based approach and scoring for identity that includes risk thresholds for unnecessarily introducing friction as people are attempting to access public services.

By modernizing its approach to identity verification, government can avoid the traditional traps wasting valuable time and effort, which detract from the customer experience and digital inclusion.

The Biden administration has committed to delivering, “effective, equitable, and accountable government that meets the needs of its people.” For some, this may seem aspirational at best without a clear strategy for how the government will accomplish this objective. In truth, it is possible to make the overall experience more equitable and inclusive, but it will take a reprioritization in focus to meet the challenges we have in legacy identity verification systems head on.

This will require a whole government strategy. From my experience, OMB is best positioned to lead this effort using the CIO, chief data officers and privacy councils to convene the necessary stakeholders to build an appropriate playbook for updating government standards for identity verification, developing processes and capabilities that operate across government agencies, and ensuring better sharing of information used in identity verification transactions, as outlined in M-19-17.

We must also recognize that there isn’t a quick fix to all the problems with digital identity, nor equality for that matter. The challenges with identity verification are complex and with every use case there is almost certainly a bit of nuance that must be considered. Solutions should be dynamic and more readily able to adapt to an ever-evolving operational landscape. The pandemic showed us it is not realistic to expect that we will always be able to meet in-person for those left out of online channels.

Data must be at the center of decision making when agencies address these challenges – not the “please rate your experience from 1 to 5” type of data. Government needs to consider disparate impact and bias assessments upfront when it comes to identity solutions to confirm they are successfully addressing the gaps in equity and inclusion. When we don’t use data, solutions are created based on assumptions and often lead to a public backlash that stymies any promise of innovation.

The challenges we face in identity verification and digital access did not start because of the pandemic – they are systemic. Much of it goes back to the very nature of how some of our legacy processes are set up for service delivery. However, we don’t have to let past performance dictate our future. It is possible to meet this challenge head on, but only if we are willing to open our eyes and make it a priority to get this right.

Jordan Burris is the senior director for product market strategy for the public sector at Socure and the former chief of staff in the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer.

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