Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

For the 15th year in a row, San Francisco-based Fineman PR has released its list of the 10 biggest public relations blunders of the year. If to err is human, then these are super-human screw-ups. Just take a look:
  1. The Obama White House cleared Air Force One to fly over Manhattan with an F-16 in pursuit last April. The purpose: A panoramic shot of Air Force 1 over the Statue of Liberty. The goal: Make President Obama look, well, presidential. But to New Yorkers still living with the horrible memories of 9-11 it was a cold, callous political stunt not worthy of any president, let alone one who had won the city's vote handily in 2008. 
  2. A school district in Delaware suspended a six-year-old for bringing a camping utensil into school. The little boy had been so excited at joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to bring his new toy in to eat lunch. The academic mandarins who run the Christina School District "reasoned" that the tool could be used as a weapon in the hands of a dangerous six-year old excited about scouting.  No amount of book learning can substitute for common sense.
  3. Goldman Sachs, the venerable poster child for fat-cat investment bankers, decided it needed some pro-active PR to counter the impression that the $17 billion in bonuses it gave out last year showed it hadn't learned a thing from the global anti-banking anger that followed the onset of the current recession. CEO Lloyd Blankfein bragged to the UK Sunday Times that Goldman was "doing God's work," and pointed to the small business loans it was making.  God had a pretty good year this year. Wonder what His bonus will be?
  4.  United Airlines' post-9-11 slogan was "it's time to fly" again. Apparently not if you're traveling with a musical instrument. Last year Canadian David Carroll sat aboard a UA flight and watched down below as the baggage throwers tossed his $3,500 guitar around like it was a javelin. Carroll sent the airline a $1,200 bill for the damage to the guitar. United ignored Carroll's demands, providing a textbook case for why old line industries just don't get this social media thing. Musician Carroll recorded a music video about the incident and posted it to You Tube. Within a week the video had amassed three million hits, and United was quickly back in touch with Carroll about a settlement after nine months of stonewalling.
  5. Two employees of a Domino's Pizza shop were videotaped doing disgusting things to the pizzas--things usually done in private. They then posted the video to You Tube. The company dithered for two days trying to come up with a response. Faster than you can say pepperoni the video had one million views. Finally the company tried to contain the crisis using its own social media campaign. Let's hope their deliveries are faster than their crisis management responses.
  6. Let's take made-for-TV award shows with a grain of salt. Still, when singer Kanye West grabbed the mic out of the hands of teenager Taylor Swift, MTV Music Award winner for Best Female Video, and told the world that his friend Beyonce should have won the award it was a bit much. Even in an industry built on overindulgence and self-promotion West's act was not a career builder. He later made a public apology on the Tonight Show.
  7. Last May Kentucky Fried Chicken learned that it's not who's coming to dinner, but how many are coming to dinner that matters. In a campaign destined for the "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time" Hall of Fame, KFC did a coupon tie-in to The Oprah Winfrey Show as a way to introduce its new grilled chicken product. The rationale:  Oprah could deliver a lot of potential customers in the KFC key demographic. The problem: Oprah delivered a lot of customers in the KFC key demographic. Lots of them. In fact, millions. They downloaded the coupon for a free KFC grilled chicken meal and then descended on KFC restaurants like a free kegger at a college fraternity. The result: More mouths than meals, and a lot of angry and disappointed customers turned away. Somewhere the Colonel is plotting his comeback. 
  8. Department store Target held an online promotion last fall for an "illegal alien" costume, complete with an extraterrestrial mask, orange prison jump suit labeled "ILLEGAL ALIEN," and a large "green card." (No word on why you'd be illegal if you had a green card.)  Target blamed the incident on a data entry error that caused the offending costume to be ordered. Regardless,  advocacy groups descended on Target faster than a bunch of grandmas on Black Friday. In a world gone made with political correctness and over-sensitivity Target somehow launched a promotion that even the most ardent anti-immigration partisan would find offensive. Bad Target.
  9. The Los Angeles Times reported that a Wells Fargo bank executive had foreclosed on a $12 million Malibu beachfront estate and then used it for throwing swank parties. Allegedly the foreclosed owner had lost his wealth in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. It's worth mentioning that at the time Wells had received  $25 billion from U.S. taxpayers to stay in business. A lot of these taxpayers had themselves been foreclosed on by banks like, well, Wells Fargo. Any wonder why nobody likes bankers?
  10. A Chicago landlord, Horizon Group Management, had a dispute with a renter last spring. The renter tweeted something nasty about her living conditions in an apartment managed by the landlord. Landlord Horizon sued the renter, claiming that the Twitter message was broadcast all over the world, potentially damaging its reputation. The renter at the time had a grand total of 22 Twitter followers. She would have reached more people shouting her message at a crowded El stop. Unfortunately for Horizon the story about the suit was picked up by major traditional media like  the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Associated Press. The newspaper business is fading like cheap wallpaper, but they still have a hell of a lot more than 22 readers. The only worse move for Horizon would have been to hire the coyote to go after the roadrunner. The PR lesson here: In David vs. Goliath stories, nobody ever roots for Goliath. 
There you have it, thanks to Fineman PR.   Sometimes no publicity is better than bad publicity!

Just thought you might like to know!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

USDA Official Will Visit Kentucky's New WIC EBT Project; Will Observe System Operations in WIC Clinics and Food Stores

This Friday, December 18, Dr. Janey Thornton , deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service will perform site visits in Kentucky to observe the State's new WIC Electronic Benefits Transfer system in action.

The system, called WIC Direct , has been in pilot operations for two months. WIC Direct delivers supplemental food benefits to eligible women, infants and children. It replaces use of paper checks with a magnetic-stripe card similar to a debit card. Currently only a handful of states are using EBT card technology to delivery WIC benefits. Kentucky is the latest.

A native Kentuckian, Dr. Thornton will be visiting a Walmart as well as a Houchens store as well as several WIC clinics where eligible consumers enroll to participate in the WIC program.

WIC Direct was developed by CDP ,  a company with a 25-year history of developing custom health system solutions for public and private sector customers. The WIC Direct system improves the check out process for WIC customers, allows them to check their balances, and reduces paper work for program staff.

The system, which was in development for two years, was designed to provide an affordable online solution to the problem of authorizing the sale of WIC food products, according to Stan Cochran, CDP chief executive. Because of the controls and regulations on the sale of WIC foods, the WIC retail transaction can be complex. Another goal of the project is to engage retailers in integrating the WIC EBT transaction into their own electronic cash register systems.

When fully deployed, the system will serve nearly 130,000 Kentuckians as well as over 1,100 retailers across the state.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Electronic Funds Transfer Association Names Michigan's Women, Infants and Children EBT program "Project of the Year"

The State of Michigan’s program for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits has been recognized as the “Project of the Year” by the Electronic Funds Transfer Association and its eGovernment Payments Council.

The Michigan WIC EBT project which enables participating families to make WIC purchases through electronic benefit transfer (EBT) using the Michigan “Bridge Card," is supported by Affiliated Computer Services.  The card offers improved flexibility and security over traditional WIC paper coupons. The program is the first of its kind to provide statewide real-time online access that automatically validates WIC-approved items, reducing the chances of error at the checkout lane.

Nearly 2,000 vendors across the state are equipped to accept the card. An ACS customer care center located in Michigan provides 24/7 support in three languages (English, Spanish and Arabic) for program participants as well as vendors.

The program was named Project of the Year” by the EFTA and its eGPC for its groundbreaking status as the first statewide online WIC EBT project in the nation, said Kurt Helwig, president and CEO of the EFTA. Michigan’s WIC program director Stan Bein accepted the award at the organization’s convention in New Orleans.

“ACS is honored to be part of a program that has become a national model of how WIC benefits are distributed and administered,” said Joseph Doherty, executive vice president and group president of ACS Government Solutions. “We are eager to show other states how this solution benefits both government and program recipients.”

ACS also provides Michigan with EBT services for the state’s SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps), providing convenient access to benefits to more than 700,000 residents.

The Electronic Funds Transfer Association is the nation's leading inter-industry professional group promoting the adoption of electronic payment systems like EBT. The eGovernment Payments Council is a group within EFTA that provides thought leadership on the business and policy issues involved in the development and operation of EBT systems.

Kurt Helwig, president and CEO of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association and its eGovernment Payments Council present's Michigan's Stan Bien with the eGPC's 2009 Project of the Year award at its annual conference, EBT The Next Generation, in New Orleans.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Wal Mart and WIC EBT

Former Next Generation Speaker Jennifer Smith from Walmart testified recently before the Senate Agriculture committee on WIC and EBT. Never shy about the company's position on EBT, Ms. Smith's comments included a request that Congress mandate development of one set of operating standards for WIC EBT. She also suggested that lawmakers consider making the WIC program interoperable in the same way the SNAP program is. This would be not only a technical change along the order that the program has never seen, but it would be a cultural change for the many agencies that administer WIC. And it would come on the footsteps of the new WIC food package and other administrative changes that right now have their hands full.

Perhaps the "ask" Walmart made at the hearing was for the Congress to mandate adoption of WIC EBT. This would force Congress to supply the funding that would finally end the use of checks and vouchers in the system.

There is no doubt that operating standards are necessary to propel WIC EBT into its next generation, much in the same way that the April 2002 food stamp operating regulations transformed EBT from experimental science to the sole method of benefit distribution (although it took 12 years) in the U.S.

But going to Congress with such a concept may fall into the "be careful what you ask for" category. While Congress may grant Walmart's wish, it may do so in a way that ties the hands of the executive agency (USDA) and saddles the EBT community with a set of regulations that are so proscriptive as to make development more difficult than it has to be. For an example, Google "digital TV converter," and see how a constraining law made a relatively simple task more difficult.

And mandating conversion to WIC EBT may be nirvana for EBT processors and consultants. But is it realistic given the lack of technology resources of most WIC agencies? There certainly are a good number of states that can take on that challenge in 2010 and 2011; however, there are many more that are underfunded, overworked, and would be, frankly, overwhelmed if told to just go out and "git 'er done."

The EBT community, the states, the federal agency and the private sector, have all worked on these issues methodically for many years before Walmart became a player in WIC EBT. It has been slow, frustrating work. But imposing mandates on unprepared states may not be the best way to accelerate the process. The EBT community could find itself no longer driving the train, but being dragged behind it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Planning Starts for EBT The NextGeneration 2010

The production of EBT The Next Generation is an 11-month affair. Once the booths are all down and the goodbyes said, the conference planning committee takes a month off. (actually, 3 weeks). Then, in mid-December, the executive committee of the eGovernment Payment Council , which hosts the conference on behalf of EFTA , meets for its annual leadership and planning forum.

While the leadership and planning meeting covers a lot of ground in two days, about a third of that time is spent reviewing the results of the recently completed conference and planning the upcoming one. Among the topics we cover are:
  • The marketing efforts: did they work?
  • Statistics: How many people attended? Where did they come from? 
  • Feedback: What were the results of the conference evaluations?
  • What can we do better?
These are usually spirited discussions. The next day we spend several hours beginning the arduous task of putting the next show together. Among the topics we tackle:
  • The fee structure: Can we hold the line on increasing fees?
  • Expenses: Where did we go over budget? Why?
  • Sponsors & exhibitors: Can we get more companies engaged?
  • Programming changes: What are the "hot" issues we need to cover?
  • Marketing: How do we get the message out about the conference?
  • Venue: We are presented with a choice of several venues and formally approve one.
From that point on the Council plans pretty much constantly untile show time November 7, 2010. To give you an idea, here is a high level look at the "project management plan" for EBT The Next Generation:
  • January: A conference call for volunteers to serve on the conference planning committee. Hotel contract signed.
  • February: The planning committee holds its first planning teleconference. At this meeting we determine the broad outlines of the show: number of tracks, number of sessions, workshops, etc.
  • Late February: Committee members select "high level" topics for breakout and plenary sessions.
  • Early March: The first rough draft agenda is put together. The planning committee adds/drops sessions depending on the first rough draft.
  • Mid March: the first "Save the Date" email goes out. Potential sponsors and exhibitors receive their first invitation to participate.
  • Late March: Sessions are given titles and descriptions; conference members are selected to manage, or "facilitate" each session.
  • April: Potential speakers are identified for all sessions, from keynotes to breakouts.
  • May: the first formal draft agenda is presented. The first "Save the Date" postcard goes out.
  • Early June: The final agenda is approved with session titles, descriptions and potential speakers. The agenda is posted to the conference website.
  • Mid June: Speaking invitations go out. This process continues until September.
  • Late June: the first draft of the conference brochure is produced.
  • July: Work continues on locking down speakers and finalizing the conference brochure.
  • August: Hotel logistics are finalized. Committee faciliators teleconference with speakers to plan sessions.  Brochure mailer is produced and mailed. 
  • September: Speaker materials begin being assembled. 
  • October: Last minute details are hammered out, including replacement speakers. Annual award winners are selected. Conference materials are drafted reviewed produced and assembled.
  • First week in November: Materials are shipped to conference hotel. Plenary sessions are reviewed and blocked. Awards are shipped to hotel.
  • November 7: Show time!

OK, all you proposal reviewers-how'd we do on our PMP?

For all of the logistical and marketing work we rely on Dana Benson and Amber Howell  of ATMIA Conferences, LLC. For all the rest of it we rely on Council members who give unselfishly of their time, and their organizations who graciously allow them to spend many work hours on conference calls, in meetings, writing presentations and on the phone cajoling potential speakers to join us in November.

The result every year is truly remarkable. A small group of people volunteering their time so that we can all share a little bit of our time and knowledge each year to make this a better industry.

I hope to see you in November in Phoenix!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Report today from the Paris Cartes conference is that near field communications (contactless) technology will show strong growth in 2010.

Friday, November 13, 2009

EBT Next Generation 2009--An Unqualified Success!

Having returned from EBT the Next Generation in New Orleans, I'm still riding high from all of the fun and excitement! How good to see everyone again and get together. I doubt many conferences have the same percentage of repeat attenders that we have.

The sessions were terrific. Top notch programming, especially on the WIC side. As usual they were timely, including Front Page Focus' take on the effect of the economy on human services operations, and the general session on eHealthcare and EBT.

Who will ever forget our trip to Rock 'N' Bowl where we rolled a 300--albeit every one's pins added together for all night! Dude, that was some bad bowling!

No matter the scores, there was plenty of food, spirits and networking, and I'll remember that as fondly as I remember our trip to the Dog Track in Jacksonville in 2004.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank our sponsors, exhibitors and vendors for their financial support of the conference: ACS, FIS, J.P. Morgan, Maximus, Chaddsford Planning Associates, fiserv, Novo Dia Group, VeriFone, Bank of America, Oberthur, Visa, Mastercard, Visa and Burger, Carroll & Associates.

And how about our 2009 Award winners:

  • Michigan WIC for its online EBT system statewide rollout
  • Peter Relich, 20-year veteran of the eGovernment Payments Council, the Pioneer award winner--so richly deserved
  • Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center, our special achievement award for all of her assistance in spreading the good news about EBT to the nutrition and legislative communities
We're already looking ahead to next year in the Valley of the Sun, when we take the EBT The Next Generation traveling training show to Phoenix. NextGen13 is bound to be another success story for the ages.

Stan Bien, Michigan WIC Director, Ellen Vollinger, legal director of FRAC, and Peter Relich, SVP of MAXIMUS, show off their new hardware at EBT The Next Generation 2009.

Friday, October 30, 2009

"You Have to See the Look in Their Eyes"

After 25 years since the first EBT programs were promulgated in Ramsey County, MN and Reading PA, the USA now has all 50 states and 5 territories “wired” for at least the electronic delivery of food stamps, now called SNAP.

Arguably, we could have gotten to this point sooner, cheaper and easier and new indications from Washington D.C., signal an accelerated movement on other benefit programs such as unemployment and WIC. The lessons of the EBT past and the applicability to new programs will be handled by many, but regardless of these efforts, one thing continues to drive the effort: the needs of the recipient.

Is it not the numerous intangible benefits that we need to consider along with the efficiencies, fraud reduction, ease of use, audit capabilities, etc. as we continue to look at new and improve programs and delivery? Here is a scene from around 1989/1990 that illustrates the importance of these programs.

In or around 1989/1990 when many states were just beginning to examine and roll-out programs for food stamp automation and moving to electronic delivery, I set-up
live, user group sessions—one-way mirrors and all. The comments speak for themselves:

“Look, I have a new ATM card like everybody else!”

“I don’t have to dig and find those stamps anymore.”

“I didn’t have to find that SIGN over the one aisle where I could use my stamps.”

“My neighbors don’t look at me funny in the grocer anymore.”

As I heard these and many other comments, all one had to do was see the look in their eyes. One of acceptance, attitudinal shift, and a true feeling of inclusiveness. If we could but bottle these looks and distribute them to the various industry players as we move into more and diverse programs, perhaps a new spirit of working across and breaking down program barriers would develop.

We can only hope to remember to “look for the look in their eyes” before we leap into expensive and potentially unworkable solutions and forgetting one of the key needs of the recipient: removing the Scarlet “W” off their foreheads.

Let's Protect the Government Room Rate

Every year when we plan EBT The Next Generation we reserve a block of rooms for our government-sector delegates. The rate is generally 30% lower than the rate we negotiate for everyone else. Hotels don't like this, and the number of government rooms we can secure at the lower rate is limited.

Managing the room block is more art than science. On one hand we have to block a sufficent number of government rooms when we sign our hotel contract. On the other hand, we don't want to block too many rooms because we pay for those rooms in the block that go unused. It's a delicate balancing act.

Unfortunately, some non-government attendees try to bogart their way in by reserving rooms at the government rate. This means fewer rooms for the government-sector delegates. Our conference hotel in New Orleans this year, the Inter Continental, is trying to manage this problem by asking government delegates to have appropriate documentation with them at time of check in. If you don't have the appropriate documentation you may be denied access to the room at the government rate.

This is to protect the government room rate block for those for whom it was intended.

So if you don't know a Handbook 901 from a cookbook, Mr. Fat Cat Corporate Marketer, save your self the embarrassment in the lobby, and splurge for the corporate rate. Either that or buy us all a round of Hurricanes on at Pat O'Brien's on Sunday night.

Travel safely to the show and drink responsibly while you're there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Farmers Market Programming at EBT The Next Generation

At the EBT Next Generation conference, we invite you to attend the Farmers Market bonus session Monday, November 9 from 5 to 6 p.m. This session is called a “BONUS” session because it is late after a full day of information BUT we do hope you will come to our session as we promise to provide you with many BONUSES to end your conference day!

There will be three outstanding speakers sharing information with our audience. Ms. Jan Walters, EBT Director from the State of Iowa, has a national reputation for her passionate and strong beliefs on the many benefits farmers’ markets bring to the entire community. Jan will share with our group the most recent helpful information on the various Farmers Market Nutrition programs, including WIC and Senior programs.

Ms. Shari Akin, Senior Account Manager from eFunds Government Solutions has done significant research into the many benefits made available through the 2008 Farm Bill including the vast number of available grants, how to find them, how to apply and WIN grant money with very helpful tips, specific websites and how-to information and these are the topics she will focus upon at the session.

We will also have a special guest at this workshop from one of the most successful markets organizations in the country. Ms. Latifia Carter, Finance Director from the Market Umbrella group which operates Crescent City Farmers Market right in New Orleans will be among our guests. Latifia will share with us some of the many challenges they have experienced in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, and she will discuss with us some of the extremely creative programs their organization has continued to introduce in their ongoing efforts to build a broad customer base from the community where they accept EBT cards, credit and debit cards.

Latifia will share information about one of their recently completed summer programs called Market Match where seniors and WIC recipients were able to receive a full MATCH, dollar for dollar, of their USDA FMNP and WIC benefits in exchange for taking a fun nutritional education or cooking class! They are measuring the success of this program now in hopes to continue and expand upon it next year!

Many other markets around the US participated in similar programs this past summer. The theme of the Crescent City Farmers Market says so much about them. It is, “Learning, sharing and growing, marketumbrella.org cultivates community markets that utilize local resources to bolster authentic local traditions. We believe that ambitious social, health, environmental and financial goals are achieved if trust and respect are present. We envision communities of market umbrellas, like flowers in the field, opening all over the world for the public good.

Please consider attending the EBT Next Generation Conference in New Orleans this year. If you are able to join us, please add the extra hour to your day on Monday and participate in this bonus workshop where we promise to make that extra hour worth your time!

* * * * *

EBT The Next Generation will take place October 8-10 at the Inter-Continental Hotel in New Orleans, La. It will feature:

  • 4 workshops
  • 4 plenary sessions
  • 3 roundtable sessions
  • 10 concurrent sessions
  • 3 bonus sessions
  • 2 social activities

There is still time to register. For more information or to register, click here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

EBT and Healthcare

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has unveiled his own healthcare reform package-and there may be a play for EBT in it.

The highlights of the governor's proposal include:

  • Allowing Minnesotans for the first time to buy health insurance across state lines. As in many states a small number of insurers control a large part of the health insurance market. In Minnesota three insurers issue 80 percent of the policies. Many people think that allowing out-of-state insurers to sell policies in Minnesota will break this triopoly, leading to more competition and lower premiums.
  • Creating an Interstate Health Insurance Compact that would create regulatory standards for selling policies across state lines.
  • Mandating that the state's MinnesotaCare and Medicaid programs price care on quality and cost.

But most interesting to us is the proposal to include EBT in the healthcare reform package. Gov. Pawlenty is proposing creation of a higher-deductible insurance policy that would include a state subsidy deposited to an EBT account. It's unclear whether the existing Minnesota EBT card would be used, or whether the state would create a new healthcare EBT card.

Several states, including New York and Pennsylvania already use the EBT benefits card for Medicaid eligibility determination. But this would be the first time that an EBT card was used to actually transfer benefits to the card holder.

State lawmakers will be asked to consider the governor's healthcare proposal during its 2010 term.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Teaming Up for WIC

WIC has teamed up with Texas grocer H-E-B to publicize the new WIC food package being rolled out in the Lone Star State.

The changes will allow WIC participants to adopt the healthy eating patterns being promoted for everyone by USDA, Amanda Hovis of the Texas Dept. of State Health Services tells Channel 8 in Austin.

She also says that about half of kids born in Texas are on WIC.

* * * * *

For more information on how states are handling the implementation of the new WIC food package, mark your calendar for Breakout Session 7: Implementing the New WIC Food Package, 10:15 to 11:30 on Tuesday November 10th at EBT The Next Generation. To register for the conference or to check the agenda, click here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New EBT Program?

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is pushing a program it says will provide relief to beleaguered farmers while a the same time providing additional nutritional assistance for families that lack enough protein in their diets.

And the vehicle proposed for providing that assistance is--electronic benefits transfer.

NASDA wants USDA to take excess pork, dairy and poultry inventories off the market through commodity purchases and make the products available to the public through various feeding programs like school lunch and SNAP.

Under the plan SNAP shoppers would receive additional benefits to purchase meat and dairy products through retail food stores, NASDA president Ed Kee tells the Sussex Countian newspaper of Delaware.

Here's the kicker: SNAP shoppers would receive an extra EBT card to cover the additional allotment, says Mr. Kee, who also serves as the First State's secretary of agriculture.

If NASDA's planned "protein supplement" comes to pass it will mark a milestone--the first time EBT technology has been extended to nutrition programs outside of SNAP and WIC.

That will truly mark the beginning of EBT's Next Generation.

For more information on where EBT is headed, attend this year's EBT The Next Generation conference Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. For the latest agenda news or to register, click here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

WIC EBT: Online v. Offline

As usual when technology brings advantages to existing processes, there are competing ideas on the best way to implement this technology. In some cases, one direction eventually supersedes the other, think VHS vs. Beta. In other cases, multiple options co-exist, think Microsoft vs. Apple.

Today there are advantages to implementing electronic benefits over paper vouchers for WIC. And there is debate in the WIC community over card technologies: Offline vs. Online. Offline utilizes a smart card, a plastic card with an embedded microchip. These cards store all the information for the participant to obtain benefits and redeem at retailers with POS devices capable of reading the chip.

On the other hand, online utilizes a magnetic stripe card similar to a traditional credit or debit card. These cards access an online database where the participant’s benefits are redeemed through either the retailers existing cash register system or a dedicated terminal.

Both Online and Offline implementations are in operation today. WIC agencies have the opportunity to assess both technologies to decide which is best for their environment. Below are 7 considerations to take into account when evaluating online v. offline technology:

  1. The use of online or offline technology within a State for WIC EBT should be a rational business decision by the State that takes into account the State’s requirements, technology direction, stakeholder input, and a cost/benefit analysis.

  2. FNS does not endorse or require a State to use either online or offline technology. Specifically, FNS has chosen to stay technology neutral and let states decide which technology to use. FNS’ only requirement is that once fully implemented, WIC EBT must by payable through the State’s administrative (NSA) grant (e.g., self-sustaining), and not require additional FNS funding for operations.

  3. Michigan WIC EBT project is no longer a pilot, but is statewide; and has been shown to be cost-effective and sustainable. Consequently there are both online and offline projects that have demonstrated cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

  4. Standards have been developed under the auspices of Accredited Standards Committee X9 for both online and offline WIC EBT. All of the existing WIC EBT projects are following these standards.

  5. Interoperability, meaning that a WIC EBT card issued by one State can be used at a retailer in another State, does not exist for the WIC program. This is because States contract directly with retailers to provide WIC benefits, which is unlike the SNAP (Food Stamp) program where FNS authorizes retailers to accept SNAP benefits.

  6. There are substantial costs in implementing either an online or offline WIC EBT project. The Texas WIC EBT project subsidized software development to support WIC EBT for a number of the retailer front-ends, and paid per lane subsidy for smart card readers for WIC authorized retailers integrating WIC EBT into their existing front-ends. Because of the efforts of Texas WIC, the major POS manufacturers now support offline WIC EBT. The same scenario is being played out for online WIC EBT, where Michigan and Kentucky are providing the leadership and direction in supporting the building of a POS infrastructure for online transactions. Future states implementing WIC EBT will be able to leverage the work done by these pioneer states.

  7. However most retailers chose to utilize a third party processor (TPP) to acquire and route all of their electronic transactions (e.g., credit, debit, SNAP). There is a benefit to these retailers to utilize a TPP and only deal with one settlement and one reconciliation file. It is thought that retailers will chose to route WIC EBT transaction the same as they do SNAP transactions. But this is a business decision, not a requirement. Retailers can chose to route directly to the EBT processor and not pay any fees.

* * * * *

For a further presentation of online and offline WIC EBT issues, be sure to attend Breakout Session 3: Under the Hood-a Side-by-Side Comparison of WIC EBT Programs Currently Operating, November 9, 3:45 p.m. at the EBT The Next Generation conference in New Orleans. For more information or to register, click here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SKU Rationalization

Retailers in their quest to automate operations over the years have developed a number of ways to keep track of products ordered, inventoried, sold and re-ordered. Stock-keeping units, or SKUs, product look ups, or PLUs, for produce, and universal product codes, or UPCs, for grocery items are just part of this alphabet soup.

For practitioners of WIC EBT, UPCs are important because they form the UPC databases that make WIC EBT possible.

But now comes word that retailers are re-looking at the number of items they carry in a store in an effort to "skinny up" their SKUs.

Walmart was the first retailer to act on this, with its "Win/Place/Show" strategy, aimed at reducing the number of items it carries by 18%.

Now smaller format stores are getting into the act, employing "SKU rationalization" to cut down the number of product lines they carry. Fewer products means lower costs.

According to one report, the number of food product lines that could be reduced across the industry does not yet include anything that would affect the WIC program.

But those of us involved in WIC EBT would be wise to monitor this retail trend, less WIC consumers show up at the store one day and not find their favorite brand of cereal or prescribed type of milk.

* * * * *

For more information on issues involving retailers and WIC register today for EBT The Next Generation, Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. This is the only national conference devoted entirely to EBT issues with several sessions that deal with retailers and WIC. For more information or to register, click here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Intrepid Nine

Congratulations are in order for nine states recently awarded WIC EBT Planning grants. They are:

  • Alabama

  • Colorado

  • Delaware

  • District of Columbia

  • Illinois

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Oregon

  • Pennsylvania

These nine states will soon embark on an exciting journey-determining the feasibility of WIC EBT for their individual states, determining what type of technology works best for them, gathering information from WIC retail vendors, local WIC agencies and others on the business processes to be incorporated in the new system, and working with the Food and Nutrition Service to develop RFPs for planning and, hopefully, for implementation.

As they walk down this road, they are walking in the footsteps of many other WIC agencies who have gone before them. States like Wyoming, one of the earliest converts to the WIC EBT concept and a proud participant in the groundbreaking Health Passport concept.

And Michigan, the state that incubated the first successful statewide online WIC EBT project. And Texas, which proved the viability of its "commercial" cost model in rolling out an offline EBT project across that vast state.

These nine states, along with the handful that are currently operating WIC EBT statewide, and the few that are in planning now, will comprise about 20% of the WIC states, territories and tribal organizations. Now WIC EBT is starting to look like something.

2010 may be the year that WIC EBT passes from an interesting concept to a battle-tested delivery system capable of nationwide deployment.

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For more information on the current state of WIC EBT, including the search for national standards, interfacing with legacy systems, and evaluating online and offline technology, make plans to attend EBT The Next Generation Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. For more information, or to register for the conference, click here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Farmers Markets

A group called Farmers Markets Today just released its survey of farmers market operations in the U.S. The survey covered over 400 respondents, about half of them farmers, currently involved in farmers markets. The results might surprise you.

According to the survey:

  • Over half of the farmers (52.9%) sell at more than one market each week
  • Most farmers are experienced marketers--57% of those responding to the survey said they have been selling for a decade or more
  • Of the markets surveyed 82% have been in business for more than 3 years, with 37% operating for more than a decade

  • 9% of the markets are supported in some way by a state agency

  • Farmers markets are a local affair: 46% of them serve 500 or fewer customers
Two statistics really jump out: the average revenue per farmer per market day, and the percentage of a farmer's total revenue that comes from farmers markets.

Nearly 30 percent of farmers say they make between $150 and $300 at each farmers market. About 14% say they make over $600 per day.

And nearly 20% of respondents say that farmers markets account for over 90% of their total revenue.

There is no doubt that trends like nutrition education and outreach are making farmers markets more and more popular in sourcing supplies for the family table. And because of this farmers markets are becoming more and more important in EBT.

Image courtesy of the Iowa Department of Human Services

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EBT The Next Generation offers a special bonus session on Farmers Markets, Monday October 9 at 5:15 p.m. To register for the conference, or for more information click here.
To see the results of the
Farmers Markets Today survey, click here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Changing Face of SNAP

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday announced that six state agencies have been awarded grants to increase participation in the SNAP program. The lucky six are:

Congratulations to the agencies. They will be using to money to increase education and outreach about the program to various at-risk populations. The announcement demonstrates how much the SNAP program has changed in 20 years. We've seen it move from paper coupons to plastic cards. From a queue up at the welfare office to a smooth in-lane process at the grocery store. From a "welfare" program to a supplemental nutrition program. From an afterthought to the tip of the spear in disaster recovery.

These changes reflect the changes in the country over the past two decades such as greater emphasis on targeted programs. They also reflect a re-shaping of thought on nutrition education, beginning with the new food pyramid, and including the new WIC food package and the increasingly important role that farmers markets play in nutrition.

But many of these changes would not have been possible without the role that technology has played. This includes disaster food plans that are effective in hours, not days, and the ability for states in disparate regions to "buddy up" when one is subject to a disaster. It includes faster and more robust point of sale equipment, and the ability to issue true multi-application payment cards.

These technologies are not administrative spending gone to waste. The provide a way for states to make positive changes in the lives of people in ever increasing ways.

Posted by Bob September 21, 2009

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For more information on how technology is helping change the face of SNAP, WIC and other programs, attend EBT The Next Generation-the only education and training conference devoted exclusively to EBT. For more information, click here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How Do We Measure Success?

Members of the eGoverment Payments Council and the Electronic Funds Transfer Association have devoted a great deal of time over the last 18 months educating congressional and executive agency staff on the benefits of WIC EBT. Partly as a result of this effort, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included WIC technology funding.

In the private sector we know when we've been successful. We know what we've invested in a project. We know the income that we've netted from that project. So we can pretty easily determine the return on that investment.

But how do we measure success in public sector investment? In other words, with a significant investment in WIC technology, how with the federal government know if it has achieved a meaningful return on that investment?

Jeff Rowe, editor of Healthcare IT News, poses that same question about the similar investment in healthcare technology that ARRA is making. He says the answers may be in a recently released report by INPUT, a Virginia-based research firm. The report, which deals with the healthcare segment, may have some clues for us on measuring the effectiveness of the investment in WIC technology.

Accurate metrics demonstrate the true value of programs like WIC. Developing an assessment methodology that demonstrates positive ROI can also make it easier to to justify increased spending in the future.

At this year's NextGeneration conference, Roundtable 2 will provide a forum for the EBT community to discuss Current Topics in WIC EBT. The topic of measuring success in WIC EBT would certainly fit into that discussion.

posted by Bob September 18 8:36 a.m.

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EBT The Next Generation will be held November 8-10 at the Inter Continental Hotel in New Orleans. To register, click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buzz about the New WIC Food Package

A half-million women, infants and children in Florida will soon be seeing changes in their WIC food prescriptions. So reports WTVY in a story about the changes about to happen. The changes will help reinforce nutrition education messages, says the Bay County, Florida Department of Health.

Over in Oklahoma, the Muscogee Phoenix reports on the implementation of the new food package, set for October 1. Should have happened years ago, says one Oklahoma official.

The San Antonio Express-News calls it WIC's "own version of healthcare reform, in reporting on the new food package this past Sunday.

"Kudos to the USDA for designing health-boosting packages that leave little room for error," the Express-News reports. The article even details the bonus benefits for breastfeeding.

It's great to see WIC garnering well earned media attention. Especially for an effort that took so long and was labored over by so many. The proof of the success of the new package will be in the implementation by all WIC agencies. We wish them well.

Posted by Bob September 16, 2009 6:44 pm

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For more information on the implementation of the new food package, check out Breakout Session 7, "Case Study: Implementing the New WIC Food Package (Horror Stories vs. Success Stories), Tuesday, November 10, 10:15 at the EBT The NextGeneration Education and Training Conference in New Orleans. For more information, or to register, click here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


We often talk about the need for champions in EBT. In the early days one such champion was Pennsylvania state senator Mike O'Pake. When the original Reading EBT pilot was due to expire in 1986 Mike led the charge in in the state legislature to come up with state money to continue the project because it had been so well received in the community. Reading ran for another ten years until supplanted by the statewide EBT system.

Eric Gioia is another such champion. The New York City councilman from the borough of Queens sports an orange tie. Orange is the color of hunger awareness, he says. Councilman Gioia is a hunger awareness advocate. It was his issue even when his political advisors told him to not bother, that among political issues that could energize voters, hunger was a loser.

Gioia was a supporter of simplifying the food stamp application process. He also helped lead the charge to convince Costco to accept EBT at its warehouse stores.

Eric Gioia is running for Public Advocate in this fall's election. Win or lose he is the type of official that can champion many of the technology innovations that make the delivery of benefits and services easier, faster, safer and more convenient.

As we look to implement WIC EBT in more and more states, we need more champions like Eric Gioia.

Posted by Bob September 10 12:45 p.m.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What Retailers Expect Out of WIC EBT

One of the key stakeholder groups in EBT is food retailers. Food retailers have been involved in EBT planning since before the first pilot in Reading, when they acceded to the use of debit card technology for disbursing food stamps because the online authorization process relieved them of any liability for misissuance.

Ten years or so ago, retailers were engaged in efforts to define transaction message sets and UPC databases for WIC EBT. That work helped aggregate information from several disparate WIC EBT pilots, and start us down the path of a common framework for WIC EBT, very similar to what we have today for SNAP EBT.

Today the retail community is actively and positively involved in helping shape the business rules for WIC EBT. The Food Marketing Institute, the trade association representing supermarkets and other food industry companies, provides an enormous amount of information on SNAP and WIC EBT on its website. This information, publicly available, helps inform the discussion about EBT.

But the issue remains: What do retailers really expect from WIC EBT? In trying to answer that question (only a retailer can answer it for sure), I go back to a discussion I had more than 15 years ago with Jim Rogers, president and CEO of what is now the Food Industry Alliance of New York State.

Retailers are wary of the supermarket becoming "the dumping ground of society's ills," he said. If our playgrounds and parks are littered with broken bottles, pass a bottle bill and make the retailers collect all of the old sticky bottles. Little Johnny can't add two plus two? No problem. Pass a unit pricing law and make retailers change the way they price merchandise because the schools didn't do their job. Can't eat fish because of high mercury content? Pass a battery bill and place the burden of compliance on the retailer.

Jim's point was that retailers are the ones who end up doing the heavy lifting on programs like bottle bills, SNAP and WIC. And retailers want a legitimate say in how those programs operate--before the UPS guy drops off a bunch of terminals.

Any EBT program worth its salt involves retailers from end-to-end in the program. This goes beyond a cursory meeting as the project is getting ready to launch. It involves sitting down with retailers before the RFP goes out, seeking retail input during system design and taking retailer concerns into consideration for system operations. It might even involve having retailers help evaluate the retail management solutions in vendor EBT proposals. Programs that involve retailers from the beginning tend to have the fewest problems.

There are many stakeholder groups whose concerns must be addressed in an EBT project. They include, without limitation, consumers, retailers, federal staff, the state agency, and the EBT processor, its vendors and subcontractors. All should be involved in the development of the project. But the difference between retailers and their customers on one hand, and the rest of us, on the other, is best explained by the old "ham and eggs" theory. When it comes to making a plate of ham and eggs, there's no doubt that the chicken is involved. But it's the pig that's really committed.

So it is with EBT. We're all involved, but it's the retailer's store, his customer, and ultimately his livelihood that makes him really committed to the project.

* * * * *

For a deeper discussion of what retailers expect out of WIC EBT catch "Retailer Expectations with WIC," Monday, 2:15-3:30 pm at EBT The Next Generation. This session features Jennifer Smith, senior manager for regulatory compliance for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

To register or for more information, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The proliferation of EBT in farmers markets across the country has been nothing short of amazing. Late last month a market in Newark, NJ became the latest location to be "EBT enabled."

For SNAP shoppers as well as Garden State farmers the North Ward Center market will be a blessing. Unfortunately WIC shoppers and those same farmers continue to be vexed by paper. For those of us in the EBT community, it is frustrating to watch that, knowing that the technology exists today to change that WIC shopping experience in to something faster, more convenient and more dignified.

All of the stakeholders involved in EBT are committed to making this happen. The private sector certainly has the technology and ability to develop the solutions. More and more states are becoming interested in making the transition from paper to plastic. The Food and Nutrition Service has been working on the infrastructure and operating principles that must underlie any technology solution. Food retailers favor EBT, and WIC EBT shoppers are effusive in their praise of the new system.

But there are numerous obstacles that remain before we see WIC EBT have the bandwidth that the Food Stamp program enjoyed within as little as 7 years after Reading. One of these obstacles is the legacy systems that many states use to operate their WIC programs. Many of these are old and out of date. States continue to transfer systems from one to another in hopes of modernizing their WIC MIS; however, many questions remain. Chief among these is should a state wait to bring up a new WIC EBT system until it installs a new WIC MIS, or can they bring up EBT on their existing system.

This is just one of the many WIC EBT challenges we'll tackle head-on at this year's conference. We're at the point where there is a growing body of experience out there. What we need now is to pull it together in some sort of best practices for state's looking to go EBT.

We'll try to get that started when we meeting in New Orleans in November.

Welcome to the EBT The Next Generation Blog

Welcome to the blog site for EBT The Next Generation, the only national conference devoted exclusively to the practice of EBT. Every year the EBT community gathers in one location for 3 days of education, training, and provocative thought, all aimed at improving the delivery of benefits and services through electronic payment technology.

We've started this blog as another way to communicate with our delegates--to show you what we've got planned this year and into the future, to hear what's on your mind, and to provide a "public square" for the honest and open exchange of information.

If you've never blogged, you may enjoy this. Blogging is a web-based chronologically of a person, event or thing. In this case, the subject is the EBT community's annual conference, EBT The Next Generation. Here you'll be able to read about updates on the conference, EBT news and information you may not already have access to, and other information that can be useful to you in your daily EBT position. The way it works is that we'll post information--short stories or articles--for you to read, and hopefully, comment on. We'll create on "online community" focused on EBT. This blog will be the public square where we'll gather.

So to further the practice of EBT, take a minute to sign up as a follower. It's easy, it's fast, and it makes you a participant in the blog. If you can access Google in your office you can access this blog. You can also sign up to receive email alerts when there is a new post.

When you're done signing up to follow NextGen, take a minute to email the link to someone else who could benefit from our electronic public square. The more people who follow the blog, post comments and agree or disagree with the contents, the better the quality will be.

We've come a long way since the beginning of EBT. We've got a long way to go. Together, we'll get there.

Welcome to the Next Generation.