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Code for America will help states redesign their public benefits systems

It used to take an hour to apply for public benefits in Minnesota. After Code for America redesigned its platform, that dropped to 13 minutes.

Code for America will help states redesign their public benefits systems
[Source Image: neyro2008/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

If you lose your job and don’t have savings—or if you can’t make ends meet on minimum wage—the process of navigating through applications for public benefits is such a struggle that the people who most need help often don’t succeed. An estimated $60 billion in funding for food assistance and other social safety net programs goes unclaimed each year.

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Through a new program called the Safety Net Innovation Lab, announced in a talk at the TED2022 conference today, the tech nonprofit Code for America will work with states to help them redesign these services so they’re easier for the public use. “Our goal is to really rethink or transform the delivery of safety net benefits,” says Alexis Fernández Garcia, senior director of safety net at Code for America. The nonprofit has worked with some states individually in the past, but now plans to partner with 15 states, with the goal of reaching 13 million people and unlocking $30 billion in benefits. The Audacious Project is providing $64 million in funding, on top of a $36 million investment from Blue Meridian late last year.

Cost has historically proven among the most significant barriers to modernizing the government’s digital infrastructure: States have to repay funds dispersed to them by the federal government’s Technology Modernization Fund, making it tough for cash-strapped agencies to afford meaningful system upgrades.

There’s already evidence that redesigning digital application systems improves access. Code for America previously partnered with Minnesota to build a new portal that lets clients apply for nine safety net benefits. The platform, MNBenefits, went live across the state 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 across the people who have used it so far since we went statewide, in November of last year, that’s almost 10 years of client time returned to people who are trying to make ends meet just in Minnesota,” says Dustin Palmer, associate director for integrated benefits at Code for America. “We estimate around $80 million in benefits going out the door to clients so far.”

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Some of the changes are likely replicable across other states. Minnesota’s application was only available in English. It also only worked on a desktop computer. “We know that for a lot of governments, most of the majority of traffic is coming from mobile devices, particularly during the pandemic when things like libraries and lobbies closed,” Palmer says. “And one of our first principles is getting it mobile-friendly, available to use on a phone.”

The team worked to make it possible to upload documents by taking a picture with a phone, and to make the application easy to update if someone had to stop midway through the process and begin again later. They also worked to help the state’s tech team take over the project so it can run it itself, and to adopt an iterative new system of updating the application weekly, instead of the quarterly updates that happened in the past.

“It seems natural when your phone is downloading app updates and you’re getting a Google update every week or something,” says Palmer. “It’s really rare in state government—in government anywhere—and it’s really cool to see the state kind of take the reins on that and work in this really agile fashion.”

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With each state, the team will go through a design discovery phase to understand what isn’t working, and then help tailor solutions. “Some states may have a need for something like a new application, as Minnesota did,” says Garcia. “But in other places, we might see, for example, an emphasis on retaining benefits as really a top priority. Maybe they don’t have an issue getting people in the door, they really want to focus on keeping people who are eligible on benefits.” In a previous pilot project in Louisiana, the nonprofit worked with the government to set up a system to send text messages to people who were going to lose their benefits; in the past, the state had sent reminders by mail, but a large percentage of letters came back undelivered. Many states may also have separate paperwork for each program, which an be combined into a single application, so a family can submit one application for multiple programs.

As it works with the 15 states over the next few years, the organization also wants to keep expanding to other parts of the country. “We really see this a catalyst for change looking forward,” says Garcia.

Tech is only part of the solution; state and federal policies are also often part of the problem, and sometimes deliberately designed to make it hard for people to access benefits. The organization also plans to flag potential policy changes for states. “Technology takes us a long way in improving access to benefits,” Garcia says. But “there are times when program policy can pose an additional barrier to client access. That is why, as part of our work under the Innovation Lab, we will be identifying and elevating real policy challenges, including those that may require a modern interpretation to reflect the context in which clients find themselves today. These policy challenges will be grounded in what we’re hearing from clients and our work to implement change in partnership with states.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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