Improved data sharing between SSA, USDA could streamline benefits delivery

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack holds up an Electronic Benefits Transfer at a White House press briefing in May, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack holds up an Electronic Benefits Transfer at a White House press briefing in May, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Online application pilots are on the horizon with a new data-sharing update between the Social Security Administration and Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service and the Social Security Administration recently updated their data-sharing partnership with an eye to removing burdens for citizens applying for and receiving benefits from the agencies by testing out online applications, expanding the use of telephonic signatures and more.

The memorandum of understanding specifically centers on the Supplemental Security Income program, an SSA cash assistance program for elderly and disabled individuals, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a food benefits program for low-income households.

The updated agreement continues an existing practice required by regulations and statute for SSA employees to notify SSI applicants and recipients about SNAP benefits and to accept applications for food benefits from certain households to forward to the appropriate state agency.

"Allowing SSI applicants and recipients to apply for SNAP with SSA prevents applicants from having to provide the same paperwork to multiple offices and reduces burden on state and local administrators," said Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, in a statement.

The updated agreement also expands the use of telephonic signatures for SNAP applications and puts SSA on the hook for giving USDA more data on how many SSI applicants aren't receiving SNAP and where they dropped out of the application process. 

SSA and USDA are also going to pilot an online SNAP application alternative to the paper-based process with up to five state agencies, according to an SSA spokesperson, and SSA will review its online initial screening and appointment request tool, called its protective filing tool, to identify places to include SNAP information.

"Social Security is committed to reducing barriers and ensuring people who are eligible for benefits receive them," said acting SSA commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi in a statement. "Partnering with USDA to test more efficient ways to apply, share information, and help SSI families apply for SNAP assistance makes it easier for people to obtain the services they need."

The two agencies emphasized the alignment of the updates with the Biden Harris administration's customer experience and equity priorities in their announcement about the changes. 

Data sharing is a core area for improvement often pointed to by CX experts, given its role in measuring feedback from customers, cross-enrolling participants in programs and powering personalized services. 

Across the government, though, data sharing is often hindered by differences in how agencies interpret data privacy protections. 

Federal Chief Information Officer Clare Martorana said of data in October: "When you're designing services for customers and you have this hand tied behind your back and this one tied over here, it makes it really, really hard for you to design an elegant system that we are capable of designing."