Most people who apply for one public benefit program, like SNAP or child care assistance, are also eligible for several more. But even when a person or family is eligible for multiple benefits, it usually isn’t easy to get all the help they qualify for in one place. Each separate benefits application might include multiple pages of similar questions, an interview component, or documents submission for identity verification—all of which might take hours of time that’s hard to come by when you have a job, child or elder care responsibilities, personal health needs, or errands to run. So how could government make it easier?
In 2020, the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Code for America partnered to make it easier for people and families to apply for multiple benefits in one place. Together, we launched MNbenefits, a mobile-friendly integrated benefits application that reduces the time it takes to apply for multiple benefits from an average of 60 minutes to less than 15. It has expanded access to the social safety net to more Minnesotans, including Tribal Nation members who can apply for benefits programs online for the first time.
In just two and a half years, MNbenefits helped more than 240,000 people access $100 million in safety net benefits. We fully handed MNbenefits off to our partners in July 2022, who will continue to improve and grow the tool with their newly formed client-focused product team. The state has become a proof point for government at both the local and state level, demonstrating that it can change and streamline processes to meet the needs of communities in an agile way.
Our new report highlights our work with Minnesota and includes nine suggestions for states seeking to launch their own integrated benefits applications. Below, we’ve included three recommendations from the report based on our experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with the state of Minnesota.
Want to learn more? Download our report Making public benefits more accessible in Minnesota: Recommendations for integrating benefits delivery
Building internal capacity
Large government technology projects are usually outsourced or wither over time. Our partnership with Minnesota prioritized building the state’s internal capacity to ensure the sustainability of MNbenefits. This required establishing a cross-functional team that spanned across multiple disciplines, including product, program, engineering, research, and design. This team shared their individual expertise and introduced client and caseworker feedback to guide product decisions.
Building a successful cross-functional team requires:
- Integrating agile development into the IT enterprise to support responsiveness and continuous improvement.
- Adding caseworkers, clients, and other stakeholders to the team—and encouraging them to ask questions and engage in decision making.
- Bringing technical parties together and using pair programming to ensure a shared knowledge of the codebase. This also prevents silos and increases communication and information flow.
- Hiring to fill skills gaps, especially in product roles, which are often missing from state teams.
- Creating a transition plan that prepares the team to lead after a product handoff or staff turnover. Begin by empowering the product team to do things like drive releases, fix bugs, and manage communications with stakeholders.
These principles established a strong foundation for the MNbenefits cross-functional team. Their ability to iterate the product ensures they can respond to the shifting needs of Minnesota’s residents for years to come.
Letting client outcomes guide service delivery
Human-centered design requires us to keep the needs, preferences, and experiences of people at the center of our development processes. Client and stakeholder voices were critical to guiding MNbenefits service delivery, which ultimately improved client outcomes. Government can use a variety of techniques to surface and solve for the needs of the people using their service.
Human-centered design requires us to keep the needs, preferences, and experiences of people at the center of our development processes.
It’s important to create parameters to measure impact. Throughout the process, it’s necessary to ask whether the product creates an experience that helps clients make informed decisions they feel confident about and eases the burden on caseworkers. Government teams should also build metrics to understand if a product makes clients feel scared, confused, or overwhelmed, or excludes or marginalizes certain groups—then prioritize service changes based on client impact.
We have used and recommend impact-based tools like a Client Pain Score, which assesses the severity of pain points across a website and helps guide prioritization, resources, and budget allocation, or the Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort (RICE) prioritization scoring system that helps teams evaluate and prioritize features in a product roadmap. Government teams can also create criteria to assess the accessibility of their services, such as with a voluntary product accessibility template (VPAT).
Turning to the data for direction
Data can be an integral tool for collecting insights about how clients and caseworkers navigate an integrated benefits application. Analyzing trends can help prioritize improvements, correct client pain points, and guide product development. The following tools are a great way to use data to improve the client experience throughout the application.
- Conduct a funnel analysis, which demonstrates the flow of users through the benefits application. Tracking the client’s journey through the funnel and identifying areas of dropoff can make it easier to spot unintended challenges in an application. A funnel analysis of MNbenefits helped us increase the application completion rate for Spanish-speaking clients from 51% to 64%.
- Use A/B testing to remove client barriers, which can show the client impact when making a change in the application. A/B testing is a way to test the effectiveness of proposed solutions prior to permanently implementing them.
All these tips, along with more examples and detailed insights into our work with Minnesota, are available in our report. Our work with MNBenefits shows the power of innovation in government to build a better experience for the people who rely on it—and it especially highlights the strides that can be made when capacity for that innovation is built within government itself.
If you’re part of a state government and want to learn more about working with Code for America, we invite you to fill out our partnership form.