Minn. refines its “human-centric” advantages Web, mobile portal
By the end of the year, Minnesota plans to expand its new, state-wide, streamlined benefits claims portal.
The portal takes what is often an hour-long application process via paper forms on the old website and reduces it to a 12-minute task, said Chuck Johnson, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Social Services. Government technology.
On the site, users can follow a single process to apply for cash and emergency assistance, childcare assistance, housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or any combination of these, and do so in English or Spanish. Residents can also upload documents and get help through a live chat feature.
“We really wanted to reduce this time, to simplify the experience of the Minnesotan who would apply, to make it easier to navigate in this system. [with] simpler language and ultimately a more efficient process, ”said Jon Eich, assistant commissioner of computer services for Minnesota..
Code for America, a civic tech nonprofit worked with state and counties to create the offering, which debuted in pilot mode in September 2020. This first launch served two counties, including Hennepin County. , where Kate Heffernan Carson is the department’s senior administrator.
She said GovTech the portal’s resident-centered approach is essential to fostering good relationships between government and the people it serves.
“It’s refreshing for them [users] seeing something coming from governments, from some of these public aid programs, it’s so easy and user-friendly and so well thought out in terms of their experience, ”said Heffernan Carson. “It really builds trust with residents early on in their experience and helps us try to continue to build on that trust, rather than starting at a point of frustration.”
The service is currently online with 16 counties and one tribal nation, with two more tribes lining up to join this month, said Dustin Palmer, associate program director for Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative. A larger expansion will begin in November and reach all 87 counties in Minnesota by the end of the year, Eich said.
Counties administer the state’s safety net programs, and officials worried about troublesome processes even before the pandemic aggravated the problem. Heffernan Carson said the previous website, ApplyMN, was clunky and time-consuming to use, and did not perform well on some devices.
ApplyMN also asks non-English speakers to call a number for help, rather than providing translations online.
In Hennepin County, the pandemic closed offices where applicants could go to get help in person. Residents who couldn’t use the website had to navigate the application process via phone calls with staff and deliver documents by mail or physical drop boxes, Heffernan Carson said.
State officials have also become increasingly aware of the need for smartphone-friendly experiences during a previous collaboration with Code for America around the distribution of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) aid. , Eich said. This collaboration found that 80% of P-EBT applications arrive via mobile devices, suggesting that a more mobile-focused benefits platform would both improve the experience of existing customers and enable more residents to apply.
Still, not everyone may have a device or be comfortable with one. Traditional paper-based apps will also remain available and county staff will be able to show visitors how to access the site, Johnson said. Residents of some counties will also be able to use the portal at county office kiosks, Eich said.
Code for America sought to build the benefits platform around the experiences of candidates and county staff, and maintained close communication with frontline workers and other staff on areas for improvement.
A new feature allows residents who have already submitted applications to then digitally add supporting documents to their records. Previously, applicants might have to fax or mail such files – a tedious step – but now they can download files or photos from their devices, Heffernan Carson said.
Features like these are driving high adoption, with MNBenefits becoming one of the most widely used application methods in Hennepin County. The county currently receives 106 requests per day on average through the portal, compared to just a handful that would flow through the previous website, Heffernan Carson said.
Various countries have reported that the features make their own work easier, with the new document collection capability making this step easier and more reliable than waiting for items in the mail, Palmer said. Participating counties also indicated that the more intuitive processes mean fewer residents need staff assistance to complete applications, Johnson said.
About 45% of Minnesota’s population can currently access MNBenefits, and the comments so far have been encouraging, Eich said. A mechanism for individuals to rate their experience found that 72% of users are satisfied, 1% dissatisfied, and 27% neutral.
Despite the deployment efforts, a “fairly small fraction” of applicants for the state’s overall benefits have tried the portal, with counties each deciding how many users to present it to, Johnson said. The pilot project had attracted 34,000 applicants as of October 8, 2021. By comparison, Minnesota received 20,251 housing assistance applications and 222,203 SNAP applications during August 2021.
IN THE WINGS
MNBenefits has a revamped user interface that connects to the county’s existing case management systems. Refreshing the front-end while leaving the back-end alone allowed the state to make changes quickly without having to wait for a more comprehensive modernization effort, Eich said.
Connecting to existing backends has forced developers to adapt to different county technology configurations, Palmer said. Counties vary in their use of automation or particular software, and developers have had to make changes specific to each county. Where possible, however, Code for America sought to avoid intensive county-by-county customizations if the training and onboarding was sufficient to help public employees use the system.
Palmer said Code for America wanted to know early on if the portal would struggle to meet countries’ needs. This concern led the organization to include in its first user base both the state’s largest county, Hennepin, and one of its most rural, Wabasha, with 1.2 million and 21,000 respectively. inhabitants in 2019.
The benefits portal is also in the process of leaving the leadership of Code for America to become fully managed and operated by public employees by Jan. 1, Palmer said. The site is run almost entirely on the state’s technical infrastructure, a move that saw the website transition from .org to .gov in late September.
Smoothing out this transfer required Code for America to work closely with the state to understand how MNBenefits should fit into its existing practices and systems. That meant programming the site in Java, which the state has previously trained staff on, instead of the Ruby programming language that Code for America uses most often, Palmer said.
Minnesota’s efforts to improve the user experience for benefit claimants are part of a larger shift in how the state approaches resident services, state officials said.
“We see this as a first step towards a broader modernization of the way we provide services to people, which makes it easier for people to interact with us,” including making communications easier and more digital, Johnson said. .
Johnson is also keen to find ways to add healthcare apps to the portal, which could be convenient for the many people who use both SNAP and Medicaid. That was the original goal of the program, but healthcare involves a different kind of back-end system, which means more work is needed to navigate integrations.
Eich said other teams and agencies may be able to take advantage of a platform like this, and the state is increasingly looking to prioritize user experiences. The goal is to reduce the complexity of state websites and allow residents to access services from different departments in one place.