Shoulder to Shoulder: Building Trustworthy Communication between Government and the Clients It Serves

Our partnership with Connecticut shows how to make sure text messages from government are read as credible and safe forms of communication
an illustration of group working together

At Code for America, we believe the best way to improve government services is in deep partnership with the experts on the ground—the dedicated public servants who work on those services day-in, day-out. In our Shoulder to Shoulder series, we’re highlighting how these partnerships build capacity within government and improve outcomes for those who use its programs and services. Together, we’re showing it’s possible to make government work well for everyone.

When governments communicate with the people they serve on recognizable and easy-to-access platforms, it’s a win for clients and caseworkers alike. Text messages in particular are a useful way to provide timely information to people applying for safety net benefits. But with the recent rise in robocalls, spam texts, and scams,  it’s harder for digital communications like this to feel trustworthy for clients. 

Code for America’s Safety Net Innovation Lab has partnered with the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) on a texting pilot to help people renew their case for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To date, we’ve sent more than 200,000 texts in Connecticut and have learned a lot about how to reassure clients that texts are credible sources of information about their benefits. In listening to clients and caseworkers before and throughout the pilot, we heard a few key things:

  • Awareness is key to trustworthiness—before the first text is even sent. Letting clients know that the state would be texting them, as well as the number the text will come from, helped reassure them that the messages weren’t a scam. Cross-leveraging other trusted communication platforms like state websites and paper mailers can significantly increase clients’ trust in text messaging. 
  • Include frontline workers in the creation of new systems. Hearing from caseworkers can help ensure that the design and implementation of a new system will truly meet the needs of both clients and staff, as they are in direct contact with clients on a daily basis and can provide a wealth of lived experience. Additionally, it’s important to give frontline workers the information they need to answer questions from clients about new forms of communication and other changes.
  • Monitor clients’ reactions to text messages. Conducting quantitative and qualitative research with clients after texts are sent can reveal where clients are confused and hesitant, and can set clear next steps for a new communication system.

Want to learn more about how to text safety net clients in an impactful and effective way? Check out our recent Texting Playbook, which is full of tips and tricks for text message communications from government agencies.

Understanding client responses to a new form of communication

One of the most important parts of any pilot project is listening first. Before we began our three month pilot to send renewal texts to SNAP clients, we reached out to clients to understand how they might react  to receiving texts from the state for the first time. In the past, Connecticut DSS had publicly stated that they did not send texts, in an effort to fend off scammers looking to gain access to client’s benefits. We suspected that might make clients even more skeptical of receiving texts from the agency for the first time, so when we heard feedback from clients who were wary of scams, it was understandable:

Why would I answer that? I don't know who you are and anybody can be a scammer.
Connecticut SNAP client

After listening to clients in in-person interviews, we understood how important it is for clients to know that DSS is now sending text messages in advance of receiving their first text, and that those communications need to come from already trusted sources. Even if it felt counterintuitive to send a letter about the beginning of text messages, we recognized  what we heard as an underlying need for awareness, and identified ways we could proactively design for this need in our pilot.

client feedback and design takeaways

Awareness is key to trustworthiness

Learning that clients wanted to hear about the new texting system via the state’s existing, trusted communication streams fundamentally shifted the way we designed our pilot. We implemented an awareness campaign in advance of the texting pilot launch so clients knew this was a legitimate way the state would be communicating from here on out. This included:

  • A “buck slip” paper notice about the new texting system that was mailed to DSS clients inside their SNAP renewal packets. Prior to sending, we tested the notice’s content with SNAP clients in Connecticut for readability and comprehension. 
  • A multi-channel media campaign, including a press release, website banner,  social media posts, alerts on SNAP field office televisions, and a message on the field office’s phone line. 
  • We recognized that if clients were concerned about a text they thought might be a scam, calling a caseworker would likely be their first step. To help staff in field offices answer client questions, we provided a series of informational materials to help staff who work in field offices answer client questions and confirm the veracity of text messages clients received.
a buckslip notice
A buckslip paper notice mailed to Connecticut SNAP clients.

This type of outreach and awareness campaign can be broadly applicable in addressing client concerns in advance of a rollout of a new feature or product. Code for America researchers recently spoke with Louisiana SNAP clients to learn how the state could gain trust and adoption of their new mobile-friendly document uploader and case status notification texts. Similar to SNAP clients in Connecticut, those in Louisiana said they’d trust a new feature or communication channel if they received a letter from the state agency about the change, heard about change from caseworkers, call center staff, or CBOs, or saw an announcement on a state agency Facebook page, the state website, or the benefits portal site. In both places, the same idea is confirmed: Trust is built by communicating proactively, and honoring existing relationships with official channels.

Building trust in government partnerships

Our work with Connecticut has also reinforced how important another form of trust is—that between government and nonprofit civic tech partners like Code for America. In order to avoid interruptions to service delivery and frustrating changes for caseworkers or public servants, government/nonprofit partnerships need to prioritize building trust and feedback loops that ensure the voices of people most directly impacted are heard, and that includes agency staff doing the work on a day to day basis. Surfacing staff feedback along the way can provide valuable insights and improve the adoption of new processes. To that end, Connecticut DSS leadership and Code for America worked together to hold question and answer sessions with all 300+ frontline workers in the state to hear their thoughts and make sure everyone felt prepared for the next steps of the pilot. 

That foundational trust allowed us to quickly expand the initial scope of our partnership—which was originally focused on sending  batch renewal texts to clients whose SNAP benefits were due for renewal. When the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) was announced in February, the pandemic-era policy to provide additional SNAP Emergency Allotment benefits would soon end, reducing the amount per household in Connecticut by an average of $155. This meant there was an urgent need for DSS to communicate with clients about this upcoming change in their benefit amounts ahead of time. The texting and other communication outreach systems we collaboratively put in place were able to do this quickly and effectively and will continue to support DSS to be responsive in real-time to changing needs in its safety net programs. 

At Code for America, starting with small pilots and iterating on them to make big changes is a cornerstone of our process to improve government services. We’re excited to see Connecticut take the progress they’ve made and expand on it, ensuring that they’re able to communicate with the clients they serve and meet them where they are—in a trustworthy and reliable way. 

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