Trust Will Be Key for US Notify—a Federal Text Message Service for State Benefits

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The text service will be the first project to come out of the General Services Administration’s new Public Benefits Studio.

The Biden administration is building a new, central text messaging service that will be marketed to state benefits programs as a means of getting timely information to low-income families with newborn babies—a project that will require building and maintaining trust among the communities it intends to serve.

The effort is one of nine “life experience” projects the administration is undertaking with the goal of improving the customer experience—or CX—of Americans interacting with the federal government. While previous CX projects have focused on individual federal programs, the life experience projects are trying to improve services without regard for which program, department or agency would traditionally take the lead.

The text messaging program is part of a set of three projects aimed at supporting low-income families—those below the 200% poverty guideline—after the birth of a new baby. At a time that is stressful for all parents, low-income families have the additional burden of having to navigate a myriad of state and federal benefits programs.

In order to tackle the full life experience of families going through this process, the 0-5 program includes creating a Newborn Supply Kit to give families; establishing a bespoke “benefits bundle” program and consultation with a case manager; and piloting the text messaging notification service to alert families to deadlines and other important information.

The latter project includes creation of a new text messaging application being dubbed U.S. Notify, which will allow state benefits programs to upload contact lists and schedule text message sends without building their own infrastructure. The system will also have templates for organizations to use, with customizable fields for important dates, links to documents and the like, and will provide metrics on successful sends.

The app is being built by the General Services Administration’s Public Benefits Studio, a program that was stood up under the Technology Transformation Services earlier this year to focus on CX initiatives, with U.S. Notify as its first project.

“Text messaging in and of itself as a practice is not a novel thing to do. But it is dramatically underused by many benefits programs,” Public Benefits Studio Director Amy Ashida told Nextgov. “What we’re trying to do here is reduce the hurdles to adoption for many of these programs to try text messaging with the populations that they serve.”

Notify will be managed out of TTS, with participating states paying a fee for the service. The team plans to launch at least one pilot this year, the results of which will be pulled into a best-practices guide as the program develops.

As the system gets up and running, state programs will upload their contact lists to U.S. Notify manually. For the initial runs, this manual process will avoid having to integrate the backend with the hundreds of legacy state IT systems.

But future iterations might include an API that will automate that process, Ashida said.

“We’re looking at reducing procurement barriers and timelines because, as a government-provided product, we can help people get off the ground and running so that they can understand the impact for their programs, and then they can use that to build a case to expand their texting program if it works really well for them,” she said.

“All three of our portfolio projects under 0-5 are designed to be responsive to feedback we heard directly from families,” Maya Mechenbier, U.S. Digital Service project lead for the 0-5 portfolio of projects under the CX executive order, told Nextgov. “We asked about modes of communication and support in which we could support families through this life experience—and modes of communication that fit into their lives,” and were told text messaging was the best option.

The team looked at other options but found text messaging was by far the most preferred: phone calls were too invasive and require immediate attention from parents, who are often being pulled in multiple directions; email introduced additional technology barriers for those without smartphones, computers or reliable broadband; and traditional mail was not as consistent for low-income families who are more likely to change addresses more often.

While SMS was the preferred mode of communication, Ashida and Mechenbier noted it might not work for everyone, particularly those who do not have a cellphone and can’t afford one.

However, access to cellphones in the U.S. is extremely high across all income brackets.

A 2021 Pew survey found 97% of Americans had a cellphone—a number that held across multiple low-income brackets, including people making less than $30,000, $30,000-$49,999 and $50,000-$74,999. Those populations also reported high smartphone ownership—76%, 83% and 85%, respectively.

Those numbers remain high even in rural areas, which reported 94% cellphone ownership and 80% stating they owned a smartphone.

And for those who do not have cellphones, the other two projects under 0-5 are focused on in-person assistance, including a physical supply kit and time with a case manager who can walk them through all their benefits options.

Beyond providing a central service, the project focused on SMS plans to provide a central set of resources and best practices for any benefits program looking to expand use of text messaging.

“We’re looking at where are places that the federal government can help reduce barriers,” Ashida said. “Bring together resource and best practices, like, for example, user-tested content; templates that they can plug-and-play; strategies around collecting consent and understanding current policy; and how they can build trust while they start using text messaging for the first time.”

Building trust, then keeping it

That last component—trust—will likely be the most important for the user community, according to Kenda Sutton-EL, founding executive director of Birth in Color.

“My first thought is people are going to block it,” she told Nextgov after reviewing the program’s website.

This will especially be true if states—and the federal government—start sending messages through U.S. Notify that users did not explicitly ask for. And, if the U.S. Notify sends come from the same number, blocking one unwanted text could prevent sends from programs the user initially requested.

“How many times did we sign up for a text message from one company and then all of the sudden we’re getting these mass text messages from people we didn’t sign up for?” Sutton-EL said. “Is this going to be so protected that other people can’t get our information and text us? Or is there going to be a loophole? Is there going to be a master spreadsheet that the states can actually get people’s information from?”

This concern is not just a hypothetical, as the Federal Communications Commission noted in a recent rule to actively block illegal and spam text messages. As part of ongoing rulemaking in this area, the FCC is looking at an extra set of provisions to protect consumers who signed up to receive automated texts from one organization from subsequently receiving “calls and texts from multiple, sometimes hundreds, of sellers and potential fraudsters” without marketers gaining additional consent.

“Our decision to require blocking here, rather than simply rely on industry’s voluntary efforts to block, as we have done in the past with certain call blocking, is in part the result of the heightened risk of text messages as both annoyance and vehicles for fraud,” the commission wrote.

Sutton-EL said a general distrust of the government in some communities could lead to worries of hacking or other potentially malicious behavior by government agencies.

Whether those abuses are likely or not, the U.S. Notify program will fall flat if officials can’t build trust with the target communities, Sutton-EL said.

“What other information is the government getting from my phone?” she said. “This is how everyday people think. But the government don’t think that the people think this way.”

In communities that traditionally don’t trust the federal government, getting users on board will be difficult.

“You have to have a hell of a marketing campaign,” Sutton-EL said. “But that’s where you circle back to community-based organizations who already have the community’s trust.”

Sutton-EL suggested piloting the program with some of these organizations first—letting them use it, provide feedback and adjust so that they can vouch for it.

“The government always likes to use the intellectual property of community-based organizations to create their new systems. But what about using those same community-based organizations who gave you their intellectual property to pay them to actually do the work?” she said.

Not only would that tap the trust and knowledge base those organizations have cultivated over the years, she said, it would also funnel resources back to those organizations, enabling them to do more in the communities they serve.

“That way that community-based organization has seed funding that they can help sustain their organization,” Sutton-EL said.

Once trust is built, the next tough task will be getting people to actually engage with the content, Sutton-EL said.

She noted many government agencies and benefits programs already send text messages—along with schools, doctors, grocery stores and all kinds of business and organizations. For this program to be successful, she suggests making sure the content is engaging and stands out from the rest.

“Am I going to be crafty to where it’s a picture and it’s cute?” she said. “Or is it just going to be a boring text message to where I’m like, ‘Spam?’ Are you sending me a cute picture that’s going to make me want to read it, or is it just, ‘Hey, it’s open enrollment [time]?’ Because we already get those text messages.”

At the same time, agencies will have to ensure the messages have branding from the relevant government organization so users know it is a message they asked for.

But there is also opportunity here to inform users on a multitude of issues facing families with newborns that go beyond the obvious, Sutton-EL said. The trick will be finding the right balance.

Program managers in the 0-5 projects are thinking about just that, Mechenbier said.

“One of the things we heard from potential pilot partners is that awareness of resources about mental health, for example, and trauma-informed care is really of interest. So, it may go beyond just benefits programs, as well,” she said.

“We’re really looking to increase the number of programs that are utilizing text messaging because we know that it can be so impactful as a communication method for people, particularly in this life experience,” Ashida agreed.

While the information might be useful, expanding to cover more resources will only be effective if the state programs practice moderation and don’t flood users’ phones, Sutton-EL said.

“Don’t send a thousand text messages about the same thing,” she said. “Because that’s when people will block the number and therefore won’t get any more of the text messages. Or, they’ll feel overwhelmed that you’re bugging them.”

Sutton-EL said she hopes the state programs would coordinate to ensure they don’t end up creating a worse customer experience for families.

“Maybe, decide to send text messages about ‘this particular subject’ around this time of the month; the middle of the month do a different text message; and then the end of the month do something different,” she said. “That way, they don’t feel like, ‘OK, I’m not even going to read this now because they’re doing way too much.’”