Success story

Building Government Capacity in Minnesota

We worked with Minnesota to build and launch an integrated benefits application—and enabled government staff to continue innovation on their own

Impact

  • MNbenefits helped more than 275,000 people access $100 million in public benefits in just over two years.
  • Applying for up to nine benefits programs at once takes less than 15 minutes on average.

The challenge

In the United States, the social safety net is composed of more than 80 services. Programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Medicaid help millions of people out of poverty every year—but knowing which programs you’re eligible for, keeping track of multiple applications, and making sure everything gets submitted on time can be time-consuming and burdensome. As a result, many people who are qualified for benefits don’t receive them.

Integrating multiple benefits programs into one application can save families time and hassle, and ensure more people have a chance to thrive. But for a state government with limited capacity, changing processes and building new technology can be difficult, requiring time and skill sets that might not be present.

Our approach

We worked shoulder to shoulder with the state of Minnesota to build an integrated benefits application that puts people first. Before our engagement, Minnesota had an online application, but it wasn’t mobile friendly, it took over an hour to complete, and people often had login challenges with the site. Starting in January 2020, we partnered with Minnesota’s Department of Human Services to pilot an improved application in four counties. We had a lot of important challenges to consider, including:

  • Benefits in the state were county administered, and many of the 87 counties had different work structures and electronic document management systems. In addition to those counties, 11 federally-recognized tribal nations exist within Minnesota, and some administer their own programs. 
  • Minnesota had some of the greatest racial disparities in the nation, with its Black residents particularly hard hit by health and wealth gaps. The state also accepted more refugees per capita than any other state, forming a complicated legal status for various benefits program eligibility. 
  • The state was running the enrollment process for many of their programs on a legacy system, and any tech solution had to work with what was already in place. As with most states, workers across counties were doing manual entry of data into these systems, so we aimed to streamline this process as much as possible.

One of the key goals of this project was to create an environment where we could think in partnership with the state beyond product improvement to move towards changing processes.

With that in mind, we developed MNbenefits in the state’s preferred programming language (Java), and delivered those applications by using the existing routing and document storage services used by their legacy application. We used pair programming between technical team members in Minnesota and Code for America staff to write code and participate in agile product development rituals, from daily standups and iteration planning meetings to team retrospectives. 

MNbenefits launched statewide in November 2021. The application is:

  • Mobile-friendly and works across all browsers, computers, laptops, and phones
  • Available in English and Spanish
  • Easy to use when uploading critical verification documents, and includes the option to take photos of documents from a mobile phone
  • Accessible without a login, a common barrier to access
  • Designed in collaboration with Minnesota’s tribal communities to include tribal-specific programs (Tribal TANF)

Building a successful, sustainable product that Minnesota could own and manage without us required a different technical approach than most outside partners would take. We employed great care in building agile development into the IT enterprise to support responsiveness and continuous improvement and helping the state create the team it needed to thrive. This meant adding caseworkers, clients, and other stakeholders to the team, and supporting our state partners in their process of hiring to fill skills gaps, especially in product roles, which are often missing from state teams. 

Our program managers also hosted regular meetings with county offices involved in each stage of the pilot, to both hear from workers directly and share product updates and releases. This was the first time workers from different counties were in the same “virtual room” together, which resulted in lots of best practice sharing and momentum building for the service. Now, this practice is the norm.

Working collaboratively, we created a transition plan that prepared the team to lead after a product handoff or staff turnover—and empowered them to make real change in the state.

Outcomes

Built on the principles of human-centered design and informed by research conducted with people who use benefits programs, the integrated MNbenefits application takes less than 15 minutes on average to complete—saving families hours that they might have spent filling out duplicate information on various forms. What was originally a pilot in four counties is now in place in all 87 counties, plus three tribal nations—and two of those tribal nations have an online application option for benefits for the first time ever.

Now, the state is prepared to continue implementing improvements and humanizing the benefits experience, long after the end of our engagement. Here’s what that impact looks like by the numbers:

  • In 2022, MNbenefits processed 4,000 applications per week.
  • Five new positions were created within Minnesota’s Department of Human Services to continue managing MNbenefits with a human-centered approach, including a digital experience product designer, a data scientist, and a product manager.  

What was most important about our partnership with the state was the effort to build internal capacity within the state government to not just improve products, but transform systems. Minnesota is leading the way in proving that government can work by and for the people in the new digital age. 

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