Put the Politicians on Food Stamps

The critique that “the government should be run more like a business” is a tired cliche most frequently invoked by political entrepreneurs whose knowledge of business ranges from “slim” to “none”.  It can still be true in some contexts, none more so than in considering the experience of dealing with government.  The difference between a fine customer experience and a terrible one usually isn’t a significant investment of time or money, it’s usually just whether or not the designer cares.  Shockingly, when the government designs programs for the poorest Americans usability isn’t a concern.  Emily Badger, for a piece in Atlantic Cities, details the incomprehensible, confusing, and menacing letters one gets after signing up for food stamps.  Give it a read, because it’s appalling.

It’s a basic tenet of software design that designers and salespeople need to use their own software.  There’s no easier way to find out that processes that seem like they should be intuitive actually aren’t.  And when it turns out the salespeople are flummoxed by a slight tweak to a product they know well, that’s usually a good sign that customers will be too.  Best of all, when there are users that know the phone number of the product manager, problems tend to get fixed pretty quickly.

Poverty programs are ones where the administrators (and legislators) definitely should be required to sign up. In an attempt to troll the Democrats, Chuck Grassley proposed an Obamacare amendment that required congresspeople and staff to do just that.  To his surprise, the Democrats accepted and voted for the amendment.  To no one else’s surprise, as a result the congresscritters have been fairly observant about noting actual problems with the way the enrollment process is working.  It wouldn’t be too hard to do the same with food stamps – require state legislators to sign up and to use their EBT cards at least once a week.  They’re electronic, so you can track compliance and dock their pay unless they actually use it.

There’s really no other way legislators will care enough to make these programs less hostile to the people who need them.  Poor Americans often have neither the time or knowledge to effectively organize and lobby their representatives.  Naturally, the politically-engaged middle class doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of these problems.  To get these problems addressed, you’re going to need to make customer experience a priority.  The best way to do that is to make it a pain in the butt for the people with the means to fix it.

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