Toward a more human-centered safety net: Code for America’s lessons from the field

Code for America kicked off our Integrated Benefits Initiative in 2017 with the goal of creating more human-centered safety net programs nationwide. In partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Nava Public Benefit Corporation, we’re exploring how the safety net can guarantee that the needs of clients are put first. Safety net programs should be simple, effective, and easy to use. When people need help, the experience should be accessible and provide more relief than friction.

Our teams have spent the last year speaking with federal and state safety net leaders in policy, programs, and technology across 20 states. In particular, we have focused on state modernization and integration efforts. Conversations with frontline staff and clients demonstrated the current system is not yet human-centered. Despite variations in geography, population size, demographics, political affiliation, and service administrations, we observed recurring themes across the country. These themes have informed our strategy as we pursue pilot projects across five states: each focusing on different aspects of the eligibility and enrollment system.

Clients will stop accessing benefits after spending weeks fighting their way through a poorly designed state-developed tool or service. Clients’ negative experiences navigating an opaque and vague application process color their future interactions. Our interviews show clients failing to get a callback from a caseworker, being denied benefits with no explanation, or having to repay overallocated benefits. These experiences inform not only their attitude toward the system but can lead a client to desert a particular state-developed tool or service even if they are in dire need of program resources. Clients will also take less efficient pathways to get what they need if they believe one pathway to be more reliable. For example, clients will take time off work, foregoing wages, to go into a state office and complete a task because they have more trust for in-person interactions or because the online system was down over the weekend.

Clients expect information they’ve given to one state agency to be available or accessible by another. Clients don’t know that state agencies do not, will not, or cannot share data with each other. They expect “the state to have it. As a result, individuals become confused and frustrated by the need to submit an entirely new application or resubmit duplicate documents to receive the full range of services for which they are eligible. Important security measures like HIPAA and cross-agency data sharing agreements are regularly a key barrier to streamlining, and frontline workers and clients bear the brunt of these inefficiencies. This is a common challenge across almost every state we have visited. Though clients are not always aware that privacy and security policies are a barrier to a streamlined experience, they may be willing to provide their permission for their personal information to be shared across agencies if it facilitates an easier, faster, and more comprehensible experience.

There’s no agreed-upon standard for “integrated benefits.” Currently, successful “integrated” service delivery depends on savvy frontline workers that can anticipate and prevent errors, navigate a suite of systems (some legacy and some new), and regularly rekey applications or client data. Integrated service delivery also depends on those workers’ ability to navigate intricacies in rules and policies across social safety net programs. OMB Circular A-87 — which expires at the end of this year — has been a key method for states to secure funding for investments to build integrated technology systems, but we’ve also seen investments in individual programs or tools guided by where funding exists rather than considering holistic efficiency gains.

States design and deploy technology systems over a multi-year time frame, and then those systems are in place for decades whether or not they’re successful. For the Integrated Benefits Initiative, this means that creating standalone tools and developing digital applications is not enough. Simple, segmented online tools may make important improvements in one area, but they don’t move the needle for integrated enrollment and eligibility systems as a whole, nor will they drastically improve the entirety of a client’s journey.

In the second phase of our work, the Integrated Benefits Initiative is pursuing pilots in partnership with five states. In each state, we will focus on one challenging touchpoint of the eligibility and enrollment process and design human-centered, delivery-driven tools to improve the experiences and outcomes for clients while driving efficiencies for workers and states. You can read more about our pilots here.

We believe integration pathways are successful only if they provide value to the client, frontline worker, and leadership rather than shifting barriers or burden from one user group to the next. We intend to better define what “integrated benefits” means by demonstrating a more human-centered safety net across for clients, workers, and state leaders. At a baseline, this means providing many equitable avenues to entry and reducing friction — all while staying nimble to changing circumstances in policy, technology, or user needs.

For that to occur, state leaders must reconsider the design, procurement, and deployment of their technology systems. They need guidance on how to develop and hire talent with a mindset centered on creativity and outcomes. This Initiative intends to seed future state roadmaps with user research, insights, and design and infrastructure recommendations. Our intent is for this guidance to shift the status quo of system design from static project management to agile product development. Ultimately, we hope states shift their thinking from “What will the technology do?” to “How will this technology support my program goals?”

We will share our work as we go through open source development, as well as published documentation, convenings, and posts like these. We work in the open so others might join us, learn from us, and build upon what we’ve started. If you are interested in our work or have something to contribute, please get in touch at integratedbenefits@codeforamerica.org.

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MichiganBenefits Demo Site

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

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Writing and thoughts from the staff of Code for America, a national nonprofit that believes government can work in the digital age. www.codeforamerica.org

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.