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Going National: Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative to Roll Out Across the Country

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s donation will help the group design a re-imagined integrated benefit enrollment service that will soon be piloted in select states.

Code for America, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that uses tech to make governmental services simpler and easier to access, has announced a new effort called the Integrated Benefits Initiative, which seeks to improve enrollment rates among eligible people who apply for multiple government programs.

In detailing the Benefits Initiative on its website, Code for America notes “millions of people qualify for more than one public benefit or service, yet the paths to enrolling are fragmented and complex.” One issue is that applying to more than one benefit often requires filling out duplicate forms. To remedy this, Code for America’s new initiative uses human-centric design to simplify applications, reduce paperwork and make the entire process faster and more efficient, both for users and public agencies.

“It’s really an extension of the work we’ve been doing for the last several years,” said Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America’s founder and executive director, “which is designed to show government services working as well as the best services you use on your phone, or wherever.”

Pahlka noted that although this is the first project of this size that the group has undertaken on a national scale, it is similar to ongoing work such as GetCalFresh, which helps eligible Californians apply for that state’s food assistance programs and is currently being used in 21 of 58 counties in California. With GetCalFresh, applicants now average about eight minutes to apply for food assistance, a sizable drop from the previous average of 45, according to Code for America.

GetCalFresh’s efficiency has drawn attention. The financial support for the new benefits project will come in large part from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which Pahlka said made the decision to help after learning about the success of GetCalFresh and wanting to more broadly apply its vision of better and easier access to social support systems. Early plans for the Benefits Initiative call for partnering with a number of states to run pilot programs. Pahlka said Michigan will be one, while the others have yet to be chosen.

In developing the Integrated Benefits Initiative, Code for America is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Digital Service, and Nava Public Benefit Corp. As with all of Code for America’s work, the ultimate goal is not to build and sell a service as a third party vendor would, but to optimize the work already being done by vendors.

“We very much intend these things to be demonstrations that allow others to do it on their own,” Pahlka said. “The work is open source, and we really encourage people who are intrigued by the approach and the outcomes we’ve been able to get to come to the Code for America Summit and be part of a community that’s learning to do this in a much, much broader way than we could ever do alone.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.