Sometimes the best solution to society’s most troubling social problems is improving an existing process, not building a new one.
That is a difficult task for those who are part of the system in need of change. Mindsets become entrenched, and bureaucracies thicken, making that change hard.
In those cases what is needed are fresh perspectives of people who have seen success elsewhere. These people can break down a problem into core aspects, adapt past best practices to new environments and produce a unique solution.
Jimmy Chen is one such person. Mr. Chen is the Founder and CEO of Propel, a software company focusing on improving America’s food stamp system.
Propel was one of the companies in the inaugural class of the Financial Solutions Lab, a virtual laboratory for companies using technology to improve America’s financial health. Managed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation in partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the goal is to produce products which benefit low and moderate income Americans.
Mr. Chen’s early experiences were great preparation for the challenge he is solving at Propel.
After graduating from Stanford with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Systems, Mr. Chen completed a series of internships, including one at Yahoo where he was part of a team writing script which appeared on most content pages served by the company.
Another was with the World Bank during the first seven months of 2010. Mr. Chen co-authored two papers on the application of mobile money technology in developing regions in advance of the G-20 summit that June. He also worked on mobile money interfaces, UI best practices and produced a series of recommendations for mobile carriers and banks.
Mr. Chen then spent two years at LinkedIn leading cross-functional teams through every stage of product development for such features as LinkedIn Today, LinkedIn Events and LinkedIn Polls.
Then came two years as Facebook’s product lead for Facebook Groups, a product used by more than seven percent of the world every month.
After seven years, Mr. Chen was ready to change coasts and focus.
“I moved to New York City because I was ready for something different.”
Mr. Chen saw how powerful a tool software could be, and knew it could be just as influential in affecting social change.
The human services field offered no shortage of opportunities. To narrow it down he talked to people in New York City’s five boroughs to learn their experience with government, financial and corporate bureaucracy — everything from utilities to cable to federal institutions.
“The time and mental energy people spent navigating bureaucracy was unbelievable,” Mr. Chen said. “Energy utilities and Comcast were challenging but the biggest by far was government.”
Mr. Chen and his team settled on a core need, one whose success helps build a successful foundation for learning, employment and health — food provision.
Over the course of a year, 50 million Americans find themselves in need of food stamps, if even for a short period due to seasonal employment or temporary financial stressor. In 2014 the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the program’s new name, cost $76 billion to administer.
And it could be working so much better, Mr. Chen said.
“Everything about the user experience holds people back from their potential. There are Byzantine hurdles even after enrollment.”
As he learned more about SNAP, Mr. Chen discovered three main problems — enrollment, daily use and re-enrollment.
When people sign up for SNAP, they begin with a 27-page form, Mr. Chen explained.
The application is so large because its design has to accommodate every conceivable situation. Few if any have to fill it all out.
Mr. Chen and his team began with developing software which streamlined the basic application, software employing internal logic to simplify which questions needed to be asked. If the applicant was single, for example, they are not presented with any questions about spouses or dependents.
The Propel team pared the initial questionnaire down to five questions which provided all the information needed for SNAP staff to open a file.
Propel is also addressing the reapplication process. Millions of recipients need the program temporarily each year due to seasonal employment and other predictable factors. Many more, as much as 20 percent of all recipients, lose their benefits by accident. In some states, everyone must recertify every six months, with their only notice being a single letter. Should that letter be lost or the family move, it is back to square one.
“Reapplications bring huge administrative costs,” Mr. Chen said.
The clunky process is a key reason why eight million people who are SNAP-eligible do not enroll, Mr. Chen said. Many do not know if they are eligible, and the only way to find out is to spend hours applying and being screened.
Propel designed an online, smartphone-compatible process for the SNAP system in Pennsylvania. Over time it will be adapted for additional states, each bringing its own unique regulations. States with significant foreign language-speaking populations can have the process translated into the most popular ones.
The website Easyfoodstamps explains the three-step application process. Applicants submit basic information which places them in the queue. Then they submit additional information in preparation for the interview process. In step three applicants submit pictures of their documents to the site, where administrators fax them in.
Opportunities to streamline government systems would take many lifetimes to complete, but Mr. Chen is keeping an eye to the future.
“Down the line our mission is to make government more easy to use for Americans with lower incomes.”