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So many broken systems, but this one has a fix

In December 2020, with paychecks halted and millions of Americans teetering on the edge of eviction, Congress acted swiftly to pass the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to keep people in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Despite the quick passage of the bill, every state struggled for months to get the money into the hands of those it was intended to help.

This is not the first time the states have failed to meet expectations in this way (like the Affordable Care Act). Quickly launching a new program today requires a level of agility and flexibility that most state and local governments do not possess, whether for building a non-trivial website, cutting $20,000 of checks a day or protecting those systems from fraud. Yet, Congress routinely authorizes funds, expects results and then complains when they do not materialize quickly.

This cycle is dysfunctional at best, and harmful at worst. Months passed before ERAP dollars reached tenants and landlords. By August 2021, only 11 percent of ERAP funds had been disbursed. The websites created by the states to administer the program offered some of the starkest examples of the problem. New York’s ERAP website was filled with technical glitches that prevented applicants from submitting their applications. Texas’ site was so problematic that by April, fewer than 0.02 percent of relief applicants had succeeded in accessing the benefit, triggering sharp criticism and a vendor change. Texas eventually did the same thing that many other states had done — they hired Neighborly, a vendor that launched ERAP sites for 442 localities. 

In 2022, building a system from scratch should be the exception, not the rule. There is a better way.

Many elements of ERAP’s implementation and administration were identical nationwide. It makes no sense that 400-plus jurisdictions all had to figure out how to implement separate websites, separate call centers and separate payment systems for new programs that had, with modest variations, the same goals and constraints.

When creating new programs, the federal government can and should do more than disburse money bundled with thick binders of policy requirements. It could have quickly established shared websites, correspondence engines, call centers and payment operations. States and localities could have been asked early on to decide whether to opt into these services. These federal systems also could have established sensible default rules from which states could diverge if they chose.

This idea is not new — (which both authors were involved in creating) and the US Web Design System are federally maintained services that allow local governments to access technical components they may not have the capacity, time or expertise to build themselves. The General Services Administration (GSA) has recently taken a big step to shape what shared services might look like at the federal level, launching Quality Service Management offices, which will purchase technical solutions that can serve the needs of multiple federal agencies. In the private sector, startup CoProcure has found success helping local governments make cooperative purchases. Last year, localities spent over $100 million on its platform, a drop in the bucket of an estimated $2 trillion of taxpayer dollars that are spent each year on vendor contracts. It is nonetheless a good indicator that local governments are looking for a better way to serve their people.

Pending and future legislation would improve this state of affairs. A rare bipartisan bill would enable federal departments to share technical tools and services with localities, eliminating wastefully redundant spending of federal tax dollars. When Congress legislates federal programs for states to implement, those laws should offer optional help from the federal government — rather than flinging funds in the direction of the states and hoping for the best.

At the time when public trust in their government is low, seamless, efficient and timely delivery of assistance and services is not only achievable, but deeply needed. Imagine if, instead of jurisdictions paying contractors to build hundreds of separate websites for ERAP, the federal government had created a single point of entry and sent applicants to the right site for their zip code, where they then quickly filled out a form and received needed funds. The Paycheck Protection Program, which was implemented in April 2020, was a good example when millions of applicants were delighted to discover that funds had seemingly materialized in their bank accounts overnight.

Despite the early missteps, the ERAP story has a happy ending. More than 3.7 million households who were at risk of eviction were kept in their homes. We don’t know how many people were evicted because they couldn’t access funds in time. The ERAP experience shows that we are a nation that can do hard things, but we must modernize our systems for the digital age. Enabling more federally shared services would be a huge step in that direction.

Hana Schank is a senior adviser for public interest technology at New America, previously with the United States Digital Service at the Department of Homeland Security.

Aaron Snow is a faculty fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, and was previously the CEO of the Canadian Digital Service and a founding member of 18F, a consultancy inside GSA.

They both worked to develop one of the federal government’s first technical shared services —

This piece has been updated.

Tags Congress Covid relief COVID-19 Government Technology

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