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USDS Launches Multi-Benefit Application Prototype, Looks for Feedback

What if people could apply for multiple services in one place?

OAKLAND, CALIF. — The U.S. Digital Service (USDS) is working on a program that states and local governments might eventually be able to use to streamline multiple benefit applications into one place.

"It turns out that making multi-benefit applications that people can actually read, understand and complete is really, really, really hard, and every state is kind of trying to do this on their own in their own silo with limited funding," said USDS Designer Mollie Ruskin. "So we thought, 'All right, this is a thing that we can do.'"

Over the past month and a half, Ruskin and Ryan Burke, a senior policy advisor for President Obama and director of TechHire, have been working hand-in-hand with folks on the ground on a prototype that the two unveiled Nov. 2 at the Code for America Summit.

"What I'm so excited to share today is the alpha [version] of a multi-benefit, mobile-friendly SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and Medicaid application," Ruskin said, adding that it's sort of a template. "It's something a state could take and customize to their own policy requirements and their own context. But we've done the hard work of trying to understand the myriad questions people are being asked to understand directly from users on the front lines what's working."

The two are asking for feedback as they develop the program, a demo of which is available here.

For now, the app walks users through an application for either the SNAP, health-care benefits, or both. Instead of presenting users with a bevy of forms, it works off a model more akin to privately developed computer programs. It asks users rounds of questions relevant to the enrollment process  — their name, their Social Security number, how much money they make, and more.

The demo doesn't store or share data.

Tech companies have been working with governments to streamline citizen interactions with government in a number of areas, whether it's applying for a business license or paying utility bills. But this effort comes from the federal government, which often works with state and local government officials administering benefits at the ground level.

"One thing I hope that you take away from this example is that the solutions we're deploying weren't in the head of some policymaker in a Washington, D.C., office with no windows," Burke said, "but instead they were things that were already being deployed effectively at the local level."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.