Connecting state and local government leaders
Civic tech organization Code for America analyzed state social services websites for customer experience. A few states stood out.
A new online guide analyzes social services benefits enrollment sites across the country so states can see how they stack up against their counterparts in reducing resident burden and streamlining safety net program applications.
The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide, developed by civic tech organization Code for America (CfA), includes an interactive chart that visualizes the accessibility of benefits program applications and websites within each state, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The chart assesses a site’s reading level, mobile responsiveness, application completion time and requirements for registration and knowledge-based verification among other features.
The guide examines the following federally funded programs:
- Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) Medicaid
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP)
- The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
Officials can use the field guide to explore how other states are making their enrollment processes more efficient to reduce participation gaps, CfA’s Program Director of Integrated Benefits Dustin Palmer told GCN. For instance, a few states have enabled mobile-friendly document uploaders, which expedites the enrollment process and eliminates the need for faxing, mailing or hand delivering documents, according to the field guide site.
The guide, which launched today, builds upon CfA’s 2019 project, which analyzed more than 70 benefits applications for SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, WIC and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Because LIHEAP is a “relatively small program that is primarily administered locally,” it was replaced by CCAP this year, according to the field guide.
“We ended up … sharing data on  different websites as part of this project, and 44 of them were brand new since we looked at them in … 2019,” Palmer said. “It's a much more dynamic environment than we really expected. Every state is making strides towards these digital tools.”
Since 2019 analysis, the pandemic put pressure on states to integrate their safety net programs and make them more web- and mobile-friendly, CfA’s Senior Program Manager of Safety Net Best Practices Sara Soka told GCN.
Prepandemic data showed only 43% of online applications were mobile responsive, and no states offered integrated applications across all safety net programs evaluated by CfA, according to the field guide site.
In 2023, however, the percentage of mobile-responsive online applications increased to 69%, and five states now have integrated applications for Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, CCAP and WIC.
But barriers remain. CfA found 70% of applications still required burdensome account registrations to access benefits applications, and many forms are not offered in other languages such as Spanish, according to a press release.
Also, more than half—52%—of benefits programs’ websites are not easily accessed with a mobile phone. “It’s really a coin flip, whether or not you're going to be able to fill out that application for the program that you need on your mobile phone,” Soka said. “That’s important because people who make under $30,000 a year … depend on their mobile phone for internet access in the U.S. People who are most in need of these benefits really do need mobile access.”
The web accessibility of benefits enrollment sites was manually evaluated by staff and with Google PageSpeed Insights, a performance tool that analyzes user experience of mobile and desktop webpages. The tool assesses features such as largest contentful paint, first input delay, cumulative layout shift and others. It also checks for accessibility points, including button labels and alternative text on images.
To help states overcome challenges with benefits applications, CfA highlights “exemplary” enrollment sites under the Progress tab. For example, Kentucky’s kynect site uses gating questions, meaning applications will enable or disable subsequent inquiries based on an applicant’s response. This feature helps avoid irrelevant or complex questions to “minimize the time and administrative burden placed on applicants,” Soka said.
Another useful tool is a human-staffed live-chat service, which is not yet used by many agencies, Palmer said. Minnesota and New Mexico offer person-to-person chat support so residents can receive assistance for a question they may not understand, he added. Both states also provide Spanish-based live chats.
For simplifying application forms, CfA suggests agencies use plain, concise language and separate important pages or sections with headlines. Agencies should also group similar questions together and ensure buttons, entry boxes and other interactive features are large enough on a mobile device so users don’t have to zoom in and out.
“We want states to see [the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide] as an inspiration and see what’s out there that they can adopt and take on in their own environment,” Palmer said.