Leveraging SMS Messaging for Government Service Reform

In 2013, a handful of Code for America fellows presented the ambitious, compelling realities they're working to create for government services across the United States. The following article details a giant step in that direction, powered by industry-leading products Twilio, TextItFront and Slack.

This week, we’re eager to bring attention to one of many ground-breaking civic reform initiatives taking place around the United States, GetCalFresh, and the outstanding organization behind it, Code for America (CFA).

A Timely Approach 

CFA's overarching mission is to build a 21st century government, and they’re doing so by evangelizing an approach characteristic of some of the most successful, ubiquitous tech products and services available today: user-centered design. This is the first step in a proprietary process that includes such goodies as community engagement, iterative development, data-driven decision making, open government, team building, and informed procurement.

An Antiquated Program

The CalFresh program, federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), issues monthly electronic benefits that can be used to buy most foods at most markets and food stores. Its impact cannot be understated; it distributed $631,249,251 among 2,380,169 Californians (~80% of which are in families with children) in September 2015. It’s state economic impact in 2014 was $7.4 billion in the green, producing $1.74 of economic activity for every $1 issued. In addition, SNAP’s national error rate - comprising of an overpayment and underpayment rate - is lower than it’s been in 25 years. These stats represent a program on the rise, of great benefit to those participate, but they fail to address a monumental issue: after dogfooding the service, CFA found that obtaining food stamps is an arduous process weighted by poor design. In fact, 40% of people eligible for CalFresh aren’t receiving benefits (the second-worst participation rate in the country). You can view their annotated teardown of the CalWIN application portal here - it’s as educational and demonstrative as it is entertaining.

A Mobile Mission

CFA recognized that like most user-centric products today, GetCalFresh needed to be mobile. This is particularly important for those whose income is less than $30,000 per year, as they’re becoming increasingly reliant on smartphones as (1) their primary internet access touchpoint and (2) their primary method of communication.

After identifying the many pain points, they created a suite of tools to remedy them: 

(1) GetCalFresh.org, an easy to use mobile-friendly website that lets people apply for CalFresh in 10 minutes.  

(2) A Twilio/Front stack that allows CFA to track and send applications to CalFresh sourced from SMS interactions.

(3) A TextIt DRIP campaign that text messages CalFresh applicants:

  • 1 minute after application, confirming their application, letting them know what to expect, and providing a communication channel in case they have questions.

  • 10 days after application, asking if they’ve had an opportunity to complete the necessary steps.

  • 20 days after application, following up on their previous message and providing assistance if needed.

  • 25 days after application, asking if they’ve been approved, and soliciting a feedback call to fuel their next iteration.  

This approach meets applicants on the channel they prefer, mobile messaging, serving as both a user feedback pipeline and a measurement of the effectiveness of the application process they’ve designed.

The Utility of DRIP Communication

DRIP communication is a communication strategy that sends, or "drips," a pre-written set of messages to customers or prospects over time. Each of the following is true in a DRIP communication model:

(1) the timing of the messages follow a pre-determined course.

(2) the messages are dripped in a series applicable to a specific behavior or status of the recipient.

Building a DRIP Campaign with TextIt

Putting together a TextIt DRIP Campaign is a simple process comprising only two components: 

Create a Campaign 


A campaign requires a title as well as a contact group to send events to. Each campaign may only operate on one group; a new campaign is required for each group you'd like to interact with. 

Add Campaign Events


A campaign event represents an action that is performed at a time relative to a datetime value stored within a contact field (in the CFA's case, the date each applicant applied for CalFresh). As such, a campaign event must define the contact field it's relative to, the offset to that field (the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks before or after the contact field value), as well as the action to perform (send a message or start a flow).

Code for America

Check out this video to learn more about the process behind GetCalFresh:

You can view Code for America’s areas of interest, and their corresponding projects, here.

Sign-up for a free account to apply TextIt to your cause.