Connecting state and local government leaders
When applying for benefits is too hard, families don’t get the support they need. Learning how users actually work through submitting an online application underscores how important user-centered design is to a program’s success.
Let’s be honest: Dealing with the government, whether it’s paying a parking ticket or applying for health insurance, can be annoying. Transactions can require a high-speed internet connection, printer and scanner, or involve finding previous log-in information written in the back of a long-forgotten notebook.
But for vulnerable families in need of government assistance, even those basic requirements can be a major source of stress, especially during life’s major events. When a parent is expecting a child or caring for an ailing family member, it can be difficult to find the time and energy needed to sift through state agency websites in search of specific information or fill out lengthy applications. These challenges can prevent public benefits from reaching those who need them most and underscore the importance of thinking about how residents access benefits during the program design process, one expert says.
Colorado is one state turning to user-friendly tech to make benefits more easily accessible. Nearly all workers in the state will be eligible for paid family leave starting next month after voters approved a 2020 measure to provide partial wages to those taking time off for a new child, providing care to a family member and other circumstances. Last week, the state launched an online portal to allow workers to apply for paid family leave and will host virtual meetings in different languages to help residents navigate the system.
“We’re proud to give Colorado workers a best-in-class user portal to give them the support they need when facing a major life event,” said Tracy Marshall, director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division, in a statement.
When it comes to social services programs that aim to help families, many cities and states see low enrollment rates, at least in part because of the difficulty of applying. Take, for example, the child tax credits states have passed to fill the gaps after the end of federal pandemic assistance. A confusing application and arduous verification process will prevent many families from getting aid they qualify for.
That’s why it’s critical policy-makers think not just about what a program aims to achieve but how it will reach those it’s meant to benefit, said Tara Dawson McGuinness, founder of New America’s New Practice Lab, a policy research and design think tank.
In 2019 and 2020, the New Practice Lab worked with the New Jersey Department of Labor to improve access to paid family leave. The state’s paid leave program was especially complex, built on a framework based on temporary disability and unemployment systems. Workers essentially needed to submit two applications to take full advantage of the benefit, McGuinness said. If users were confused during the application process, it was difficult to get in touch with anyone at the state, and private employers couldn’t offer much guidance either. As one person told The New Practice Lab: “You need a ‘Maternity-Leave Pay for Dummies’ so people know what to do, when to do, and how to do it.” On top of that, the paid leave system relied on outdated technology that did not collect nuanced data from applicants, making it difficult for program managers to understand who the benefits were reaching.
In its work to revamp the user experience, the New Practice Lab interviewed families and employers to see where people were getting stuck, confused or giving up. With the increased capacity provided by New Practice Lab staff, the Department of Labor could pull data to better understand those challenges.
There were several takeaways from the experience in New Jersey. First is making it easier for the public to learn about government services, McGuiness said. Even when people are aware of the programs that exist, they may not immediately know which services are affiliated with which agencies, making a “no wrong doors” approach important. For example, a parent looking for food assistance may go to a child welfare office, and if that’s not the proper agency to seek aid from, there should be materials pointing the parent in the right direction.
Second, applications should be as clear and simple as possible. To reduce users’ confusion, for instance, New Jersey agencies cut back on “alphabet soup,” replacing acronyms and legal jargon with plain language throughout applications and outreach materials. They also tested materials and processes with real families, identifying and resolving confusion and bottlenecks. Agencies should also partner with employers to improve the public’s understanding of paid leave policies.
The third lesson involved understanding the importance of streamlining and regularly refreshing application processes. For most states, programs and policies grow more complicated over time, McGuinness noted. Add a few questions to an application one year, add a new requirement another year, and eventually the whole thing snowballs into a confusing, tangled mess. But very few agencies have personnel who can go back and review program processes.
Making programs more easily accessible and efficient helps build trust in government. McGuinness was part of the team that first launched healthcare.gov after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. There were quite a few hiccups in the implementation as users struggled to navigate the portal, and that kind of dysfunction diminished trust in government, McGuinness said.
When rolling out new systems, McGuinness said, there are two important questions to keep in mind: Does it work? And does it make users feel like they’ve been heard? How agencies answer those questions determines “what people's experience of government is.”
And while easy-to-use websites and functional user portals may not fully reestablish that trust, they’ll be an important tool in helping reverse the trend, McGuinness said.