Code for America will help states transform their public welfare programs

If you lose your job and have no savings — or if you can’t make ends meet on minimum wage — navigating the welfare claims is so difficult that the people who need help most often don’t succeed. an estimated one 60 billion dollars in funding food aid and other social safety net programs is not claimed each year.

Through a new program called the Safety Net Innovation Lab, announced today in a presentation at the TED2022 conference, the tech nonprofit Code for America will work with states to help them transform these services to be easier for the public to use. “Our goal is to truly rethink or transform how safety net benefits are delivered,” said Alexis Fernández Garcia, senior director of safety net at Code for America. The nonprofit has worked with a few states individually in the past, but now plans to partner with 15 states with a goal of reaching 13 million people and unlocking $30 billion in benefits. The Audacious Project has committed $64 million in funding, in addition to a $36 million investment by Blue Meridian late last year.

Cost has historically proven to be one of the biggest obstacles to modernizing government digital infrastructure: states have to pay back funds allocated to them by the federal government’s Technology Modernization Fund, making it difficult for cash-strapped agencies to come up with meaningful systems to make upgrades.

There is already evidence that the redesign of digital application systems improves access. Code for America previously partnered with Minnesota to build a new portal through which customers can claim nine safety net benefits. the platform, MN benefits, went live statewide late last year. Through the old portal, it took an hour to submit an application; Now the average application time is 13 minutes. “If you just look at our impact on people who have used it to date since we went statewide last November, that’s nearly 10 years of customer time given back to people trying, just in Minnesota over making ends meet,” says Dustin Palmer, associate director of integrated services at Code for America. “We estimate that customers have received approximately $80 million in benefits to date.”

Some of the changes are likely to be transferrable to other states. Minnesota’s bid was only available in English. It also only worked on a desktop computer. “We know that for many governments, the majority of traffic comes from mobile devices, especially during the pandemic when things like libraries and lobbies are closed,” Palmer said. “And one of our top principles is to make it mobile-friendly so that it can be used on a phone.”

The team worked to enable document uploading by taking a photo with a phone and easily update the application if someone had to stop mid-process and start again later. They also worked to help the state’s technical team take over the project so they could run it themselves and introduce an iterative new system of updating the application weekly instead of the quarterly updates that have happened in the past.

“It seems normal if your phone downloads app updates and you get a Google update or something every week,” says Palmer. “It’s really rare in state government – in government anywhere – and it’s really cool to see the state taking the reins and working in this really agile way.”

At each status, the team goes through a design discovery phase to understand what isn’t working, and then helps develop bespoke solutions. “Some states may need something like a new application, like Minnesota did,” Garcia says. “But elsewhere we could see, for example, that the emphasis on maintaining benefits is really the top priority. Maybe they don’t have a problem getting people in the door, they really want to focus on keeping people who are eligible for benefits.” In a previous pilot in Louisiana, the nonprofit worked with the government to develop a system set up to send text messages to people who would lose their benefits; In the past, the state had sent reminders by post, but the majority of the letters came back undeliverable. Many states may also have separate documentation for each program that can be combined into a single application, allowing a family to apply for multiple programs.

As it works with the 15 states over the next few years, the organization plans to expand to other parts of the country. “We really see it as a catalyst for change in the future,” says Garcia.

Tech is only part of the solution; State and federal politics are often part of the problem as well, and sometimes intentionally designed to make it difficult for people to access services. The organization also plans to indicate potential policy changes for states. “Technology is taking us a long way to improve access to services,” says Garcia. But “there are times when program policies can present an additional barrier to client access. For this reason, as part of our work in the Innovation Lab, we will identify and address real policy challenges, including those that may need a modern interpretation to reflect the context in which customers find themselves today. These policy challenges are based on what we hear from clients and our work to implement change in partnership with states.” Code for America will help states transform their public welfare programs


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