Could Technology Upgrades Help Stop Welfare Fraud?

Jul 16, 2013
Originally published on July 16, 2013 11:40 am

Officials in Massachusetts are investigating whether to file criminal or civil charges after an auditor’s report last month found that the state had handed out $18 million in questionable benefits — including welfare — to more than 1,000 dead people.

Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder just signed a law to make sure that dead people are not eligible for food assistance.

There have been calls for “entitlement reform,” but Melissa Threadgill, a Master in Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, argues that what’s really needed is data reform — upgrades to data systems that are years out of date.


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Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick says he's in favor of requiring photo IDs on all EBT cards. These are the debit cards for food stamps. An auditor report found that the state handed out $18 million in questionable benefits, including to more than a thousand dead people. Now, 18 million is only a small portion of the total amount handed out, but that's fueled a call for entitlement reform across the country. Michigan's Republican Governor Rick Snyder just signed a new law to ensure that dead people are not eligible for food assistance, although his Department of Human Services says that's already the policy.

But our next guest says making poor families jump through additional hoops is not the answer; instead we need data reform. Melissa Threadgill is a grad student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and wrote an op-ed about all of this in The Boston Globe. Melissa, we know you've seen the government computer system. So what's the problem?

MELISSA THREADGILL: Most government employees at all levels of government are working with technology that is often years out of date. That can be anything from the actual computer they're using, the software, the browsers, all the way to the more complicated databases that we use to gather and store and track information.

YOUNG: So what is all the problems that would come if you've got an old computer system?

THREADGILL: Yeah. Well, if any of us have ever used an old computer system, we know they're prone to crashing. They can run slowly if they're up-to-date. We've developed lots of new technologies that can be used to gather and analyze data or to have one database talk to another database. But if our systems are old, they're not able to do these things.

YOUNG: You point to the Veterans Administration as an example.

THREADGILL: Yeah, absolutely. You've got - right now the Veterans Administration has a backlog of over 600,000 cases and part of the reason is that they're still using paper-base files. So there's actually a huge room that they have to go and collect your file. Veterans need their benefits and they need them now. But because they don't have the proper computer systems, they're not getting them in time.

YOUNG: Well, why do you think they haven't been getting the proper computer systems? Is it just money?

THREADGILL: There's, I think, a couple of things. So one is money. These new systems do require an upfront investment. But also the technology that I'm recommending folks use, which is more open source, has been around for more than a decade, but it hasn't really started to gain popularity for the last maybe five, six, seven years.

YOUNG: OK. What is open source?

THREADGILL: So open-source software is just software where the code behind it is released, and that means that you don't have to pay a license to use it. Anyone can use it. And you can also take that code and you can improve it. You can modify it. You can adapt it so that it works to suit your needs.

YOUNG: For some people there might immediately be an almost counterintuitive response. Wait a second, open source...


YOUNG: ...up in the cloud. We can't put private information about who's on welfare in that...


YOUNG: ...because it sounds too open.

THREADGILL: Yeah, absolutely. There's, you know, I think people approach it with the thought that, oh, security is going to be a concern here. But it turns out there are already a ton of government agencies using it. is built on open source, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, EPA. I even learned this week that some of the programs at the National Security Administration are built on open source. So there are lots of ways that you can take open-source technology and adapt it to make it as secure as you need it to be.

YOUNG: Let's take welfare payments, for example. How would open source address the issue of payments going to people who aren't living anymore?

THREADGILL: So part of the problem is that you have two databases. One, you have a database run by the Social Security Administration that finds out eventually when you're dead. The other is a database run by the Department of Transitional Assistance here in Massachusetts. I don't know what either of those databases look like, but my guess is that they're built on different platforms. And that means they have a really hard time talking to each other and so errors occur. And that is, I suspect, how things like this happen where you have dead people that Social Security knows is dead, but the DTA does not notice that.

YOUNG: And so they're still sending out those checks.


YOUNG: So if it was an open source and the codes could be adapted so that these two systems could speak to each other, voila.

THREADGILL: Yeah. If they're both actually built on open-source platforms - the beauty of open source is they're designed to operate with other systems. And so making these databases talk to each other is a lot easier.

YOUNG: You say Kansas went to more transparency, open source, saved how much?

THREADGILL: $850,000 a year.

YOUNG: Well, that's a lot of money.


YOUNG: OK. Give us some other examples.

THREADGILL: Well, another example is in California the Department of Child Support Services, they took a combination of off-the-shelf systems and open-source software. They built a program that worked really well for them. And in doing this they increased performance in the agency. They improved the quality of the data, and they also reduced their operating cost.

YOUNG: Hawaii, what do they do there? And I think it's the criminal justice system?

THREADGILL: Yeah. This is interesting. So there's a whole group of states led by Hawaii that's creating an open-source information-sharing system. So we'd like to think that justice and public safety agencies can talk really well to each other. But often what happens is because they're built on these different databases, that's not happening. And in particular, it's often not happening across state lines. You know, Michigan has a different database than Massachusetts.

And so, if someone escapes from Massachusetts and they go to Michigan, we might not pick them up. So what this group of states led by Hawaii is doing is they're creating an information-sharing system that's going to prevent some of those problems.

YOUNG: So that the criminal justice systems from different states can talk to each other.

THREADGILL: Exactly. And the agencies within each state.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, you mentioned the NSA using open source, and I've been thinking about, you know, we are in the age of the NSA surveillance programs. People might be uncomfortable with government agencies using more of this open source if it makes their spying on Americans more efficient.

THREADGILL: Mm-hmm. I think there are two questions we have to address. One, is do we have the technology necessary to share data? And the second question is do we want to be able to share the data? And I think that if we look at it, there are sometimes we do. We would like the Department of Transitional Assistance to be able to talk to the Social Security Administration. And we might, as a country, decide there are times that we don't want this data to be shared. But I think we should separate the ethical and moral question from the technological question.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and just staying with that thought, though, of which are most secure, a reader of the Boston Globe where you wrote your op-ed, Miker Six(ph) writes on the website that those big, expensive programs at the government that you don't like, those proprietary systems that are clunky and can't talk to other systems, they are less prone to hacking.

THREADGILL: I don't think that experience is always borne that to be true. One interesting thing about open-source software is you have a lot of different developers working on it at the same time. That means if there are errors or patches that are necessary, more people are going to be noticing the problem. There are some proprietary systems that have great security, but that's not universally true. What you need to do is have a systems administrator that knows how to get the security settings properly done. But it's not an either-or. It's just a matter of doing it correctly.

YOUNG: That's Melissa Threadgill, grad student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, formerly a Senate aide here in Massachusetts, where she noticed the old government computer systems were awfully clunky and is recommending open source. Melissa, thanks for speaking with us.

THREADGILL: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: And up next, HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham with some summer sounds, including what's either going to be an old favorite or a brand new band for many: Booker T. and the M.G.'s. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.