Policy Progress


  • Picture of Sean Kline
    Sean Kline
    Director of Policy and Innovation, RSA US
  • Picture of Jim Pugh
    Jim Pugh
    Co-founder of the Universal Income Project
  • Public Services & Communities
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  • Global

Putting users at the centre of social service design

When a family in the US runs into hard times financially, the country’s social safety net should be there to catch them. But what the safety net promises and what it delivers are vastly different. While, sometimes, families struggle to receive the assistance they need because social services provide insufficient support, often families simply cannot access the existing support for which they are eligible. The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into stark relief, as millions of Americans struggled to access unemployment insurance, stimulus checques and rental assistance.

This is not just terrible for individual families; it affects the dynamism of the economy a generation from now. Strengthening public services for those who need them most is central to our resiliency and ability to respond to the economic, technological and environmental challenges on the horizon.

One fundamental problem is that benefits policies have traditionally been designed by people far removed from those needing assistance; while a growing number of people recognise the need for change, top–down approaches to policy design are still deeply embedded in the US’s existing systems. Policymakers and administrators have missed the cardinal rule of service design: centring the user.

This guiding principle is what lies behind the RSA’s decision to co-found the Benefits Access and Equity (BAE) Initiative in 2022 with the Economic Security Project, Universal Income Project and End Poverty in California. This initiative is focused on the challenges and opportunities California faces to strengthen its safety net and, in turn, the economic security of its residents and the dynamism of its economy.

To kick off the initiative, BAE convened policymakers, frontline service providers, senior benefits administrators, union representatives and those with lived expertise navigating the complex and psychologically taxing benefits system. As anyone who has facilitated diverse stakeholders understands, creating an authentic space for the voices of those with the least power requires deliberate design and purposeful effort. To ensure an inclusive process, BAE compensated those with lower incomes for their time and expenses, used processes and structures that enabled people to engage as peers, and encouraged all participants to use simple clear language, avoiding alienating acronyms and jargon. Most importantly, BAE aimed to give participants ownership over the design process and the solutions it produced.

Using inclusive design processes developed by the Design Council in the UK, BAE collaborators harvested insights to identify high-level concepts that county governments – those responsible for benefits in California – may be able and willing to test. BAE is now in conversation with San Francisco and Los Angeles counties about pilot-testing two innovative benefit models emerging from its stakeholder design process. One of these models would waive the requirement of recipients to recertify their eligibility for benefits and supplement benefits with regular unconditional cash payments – a guaranteed basic income – to bring the level of support up to the poverty line and regulate benefit flow for participants. A second model would recruit and train individuals already enrolled in a benefit programme as ‘navigators’ to help those new to government support access benefits and other essential resources offered by the county.

Sean Kline is the Director of Policy and Innovation, RSA US.

Jim Pugh is Co-founder of the Universal Income Project

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2023.

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