|February 6, 2020
|Revised Guidance for Use of Vendor/Private Staff in Call Centers: 2020 Update 1
|All State Agencies
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) continuing collaborative effort with states to enhance customer service, I would like to clarify existing policy and inform you about additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) flexibilities to assist in streamlining program administration in call centers. As you know, many states are moving toward greater integration among human service programs and are looking for better ways to merge their operations across programs to improve administrative efficiency and customer service. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) supports these innovative approaches.
SNAP is unique among federal programs in that the law requires states to use merit system employees to certify applicant households. Specifically, the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, as amended, and SNAP regulations require SNAP certification interviews and eligibility determinations to be conducted by state agency employees that were hired under a merit system (“state agency employees”). FNS is aware of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance that was published in the Federal Register on April 19, 2019, entitled “Certifying the Use of a Merit Personnel System as Required by the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970”. While this notice explains that a state or Local agency has the discretion to determine the most appropriate staffing method (in regard to utilizing state employees or contract employees) for a merit system required to be established by a federally funded program, the notice clarifies that the flexibility only applies in the absence of any other statutory or regulatory requirement to use a specific staffing method. As SNAP has both statutory2 and regulatory3 requirements to use state agency employees for the interview and certification, state agencies must follow SNAP policy with regard to these activities. As outlined in the attached SNAP Call Center Support Policy, FNS has identified activities that may impact client eligibility and the amount of benefits a household receives as “certification” functions to be performed only by state agency employees.
While these specific responsibilities remain the role of state agency employees, FNS guidance released in recent years has allowed states to test additional capacity for vendor/private staff with Federal Financial Participation (FFP), as state business processes and technology evolve. The most recent guidance released in December 2017 permitted states to use vendor/private staff, with FNS approval, for a limited set of functions related to the SNAP certification process such as providing basic case information from the eligibility system to a SNAP applicant or participant.
Seven states have requested and been approved for some of these flexibilities since the December 2017 policy revision. These efforts have so far proven successful and FNS has identified a few best practices, including:
- The state should hold regularly scheduled trainings and refresher courses for vendor/private staff regarding SNAP case processing, with a focus on tasks for which states must have FNS approval for vendor/private staff to perform.
- State phone systems should include a customer satisfaction survey at call completion, including the data points that will be requested in the Call Center Major Change Reporting Template.
- States should include clear, measurable metrics for vendor/private staff performance in call center contracts. These could include, but are not limited to, call wait times, call drop and block rates, trend analyses, and/or error rate comparisons.
FNS recommends that states incorporate these best practices where appropriate into their ongoing call/contact center operations. Building on best practices to date and consistent with USDA’s efforts to improve customer service and increase state flexibility within the bounds of the law, while continuing to encourage states as laboratories of innovation, FNS is once again expanding allowable activities for states seeking to use vendor/private staff in call centers. The additional functions for which states may use, with FNS approval, vendor/private staff to perform are:
- screening for eligibility;
- providing application assistance;
- answering client questions about missing information;
- pursuing missing information; and
- providing verification guidance.
States have indicated that these additional flexibilities will provide improved customer service, reduce applicant and participant wait times, decrease workload on state agency employees, and allow for better coordination across multiple human service programs. In addition to these activities requiring FNS approval, FNS has also expanded the tasks that vendor/private staff can perform without FNS approval. The additional tasks include:
- providing general information;
- providing locations and referrals;
- responding to requests for blank applications; and
- providing the following read-only information from the system: case status, application status, receipt of documentation, benefit amount and date, and case denial reason.
Accordingly, we are issuing a 2020 revision of the SNAP Call Center Support Policy, a copy of which is attached to this document. Please note that states must continue to request FNS approval to use non-state agency employees in any of the indicated capacities, in order to ensure continued FFP support.4 In accordance with 7 CFR 275.3(a), for states that are requesting to have vendor/private staff conduct one of the new functions (indicated by an * in the SNAP Call Center Support Policy), FNS intends to designate call/contact centers as areas required to be reviewed in the state’s management evaluation (ME) for the first two years following implementation of the requested flexibility. FNS also intends to require that states submit these ME report to FNS for review under 7 CFR 272.15(b)(4). In addition, beginning with submissions for fiscal year 2021, states will be expected to include as part of their state plans of operation5 details of how non-merit staff are being used as part of SNAP call center operations. Additional information on this update to the state plans of operation Guidance will be shared with states in the near future. FY 2021 state plans of operation will be due to FNS on Aug. 15, 2020
Please note that, as before, vendor/private staff will not be allowed to alter a SNAP applicant or participant’s case in a way that could affect their eligibility or benefit level, regardless if the vendor/private staff is working in a call center or in some other role. As noted above, the SNAP interview and certification/eligibility determination process remain a state agency employee responsibility, consistent with statute and regulation. Under Section 17(b) of the Food and Nutrition Act, as amended, FNS may consider state requests for demonstration projects that would permit vendor/private staff to perform the SNAP interview and certification/eligibility determination. Any proposed demonstration projects must have clearly stated objectives and a robust evaluation component.
FNS would also like to remind states that the Major Changes Rule at 7 CFR 272.15 may apply to the implementation of a call center or changes in the use of state agency merit system personnel.
Please note that this revised guidance is subject to the Paperwork Reduction Act. The potential Information Collection Burden that could be imposed upon states by this guidance will be included as a part of the Information Collection entitled “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Operating Guidelines, Forms and Waivers” (OMB Control No. 0584-0083) which is currently approved through spring 2020.
FNS looks forward to reviewing any requests from states and working to ensure that our programs are run in the most efficient manner while maintaining a high level of customer service for SNAP households. SNAP state agencies should contact their respective FNS regional offices with any questions about this memorandum.
Program Development Division
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
2 Section 11(e)(6) of The Food and Nutrition Act, as amended (7 USC 2020(e)(6))
3 CFR 272.4(a)
4 As discussed later in this memo, details regarding non-merit staff in call centers are required to be included as part of state plans of operation beginning in FY21. Per 7 CFR 277.16, FNS has the right to suspend or disallow FFP if a state fails to comply with their FNS-approved state plan of operation.
5 Required per 7 CFR 272.2