5 Questions to Ask When Choosing an ERA Vendor Solution
By: Danielle Katz, Google.org Fellow
U.S. Digital Response (USDR) has been keeping a close eye on the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) implementations, working with counties and cities who need technical support to ensure their program works. In order to do that, we’ve examined the vendors of SaaS products who are responding to the need for help to distribute the funds.
After seeing the needs, and having our team of engineers, product managers, and designers look at state run applications as well as understanding the vendor environment, we’ve done some market research on ERAP administration products. Today we will be sharing some specific questions to ask about your own ERAP implementation to help reduce your time for processing applications, tracking current fund expenditures and managing potential future fund distribution.
Since the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) launched nearly a year ago, at least five vendors have created ERAP-specific software. These software solutions allow governments to create tenant and landlord applications for ERAP quickly, and many provide a system to make it easier for officials to prioritize and review applications in a standardized way. Many of these solutions are appealing, as they ensure compliance with Treasury reporting requirements and make application processing simpler. However, signing up with the wrong vendor can result in overpaying and frustration when features don’t line up with your needs.
If you are looking at moving your ERAP to a vendor platform, there are some important questions to ask to consider if switching makes sense and to help choose the right platform for you. In addition to more obvious considerations like cost, these are the questions we considered when analyzing different vendors:
1) What is the process for data migration?
If you are migrating from another software system or a customized solution built in-house, it is important to understand how moving to a vendor will impact the existing data. Asking thoughtful, process-oriented questions before you start will set you up for success and allow you to be aware if migration is not an option. While some vendors offer ways to connect to local databases or import data, no vendor (at time of publishing) provides clear support for this.
Does the vendor you plan to work with support data migration? If not, you might want to think about how you’ll compute metrics on the success of the program in general (including before you started using the vendor) and how to handle cases where a resident that applied to the legacy program applies to the newer one as well.
If the vendor does support data migration, does all of your data need to be in a certain format first? Does the vendor offer support for bringing over this data? The vendor may offer an import tool or the ability to connect the platform with a local database. If the vendor supports an import tool, can your data be exported from the current program to the version the vendor software expects? If the vendor software will be connected to your local database, does it support the database you currently use? What does this connection process look like?
2) How much customization is offered, and how much do I want?
Some vendors offer pre-packaged solutions with small amounts of customizability, but they offer configuration options. Others leave more of the decisions about application flow and wording up to you. You should discuss customization options up front and make sure the vendor is able to support what your program needs, or to decide that you’re willing to adapt your process to meet the systems out of the box solution.
For example, can you add an extra checkbox option or change a document upload to a self-attestation form? Can prioritization of the applications on the case manager side be updated to fit what your program needs? Does all customization have to be done at the beginning, or can pieces be customized later? If a representative of the vendor has to make these changes for you, is that included in the solution’s cost? And if not — could you make it work in a different way?
3) Is the application accessible and easy to use?
Keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to get the rental assistance money into the hands of as many people who need it as possible, try navigating through the application on your own, as if you were a tenant or landlord applying for assistance.
Is the application accessible to mobile users and available in languages that residents of your state might need? Can users return to an incomplete application? Are applicants given options to “self attest” when documentation is not necessary? Is the application in plain language that is easy to understand? Can both the landlord and the tenant initiate the online application and is the application flow clear for both user types?
Some additional best practices to keep in mind are outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury here.
4) What does application processing look like?
In addition to understanding how tenants and landlords access the application, it is important to understand how people working on the processing side review applications and view metrics and dashboards. Think of all the groups that will be working for the program, like case managers, customer service agents and administrators, and understand if the vendor platform suits their needs.
Most vendors offer some form of admin or case management user interface in order to make application processing easier. There are certain factors that vendors use to prioritize the list of applications (e.g., whether the tenant has an eviction notice or not). The admin page may also allow for communication with the applicants and updates of application status without having to leave the site.
5) How are funds disbursed?
Some vendor solutions offer disbursement of funds through their platform, while others will set up a payment file, but don’t actually process the payments. Make sure to understand how these processes work, so there are no surprises or misunderstandings after signing onto one of the vendors.
Our suggestion? Consider long-term goals
While the main goal is to get tenants and landlords through the ERA process quickly, there is room to consider long-term goals. For example, if you want to align this program with other government systems and programs or to add additional capabilities, you might want to consider if the vendor you’re considering offers integrations (e.g., integrating with courts to get data on pending evictions to prioritize cases or integrating with salesforce for case management). In many cases, vendor platforms won’t offer very customized workflows, so it is important to discuss that and have an alternate plan for anything that isn’t supported. Additionally, it is useful to understand how the vendor solution will evolve as more guidance comes out. Will the vendor make updates that your program automatically receives if requirements change or will you have to be involved in making these changes?
Keep in mind that if you choose to use a vendor platform for your ERAP, the software solution should ensure all your program’s needs are met and there are no surprises down the road. These tools are designed to help you do your jobs better, and (hopefully) not make things harder.
Let’s work together
If you are a government partner looking for support, please reach out to us here. We’ve looked at many applications from states across the country, and are happy to review or discuss challenges your program is facing. Similarly, if you are a technologist or public servant looking for ways to volunteer your skills on high-impact, high-urgency projects, join our USDR volunteer community here.