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Civilla Expands Michigan Benefits Application Project

The Detroit-based company, which has had some of the most tangible success in applying human-centered design techniques to public-facing government processes, has teamed with the state again.

Government Technology/David Kidd
Michigan has launched streamlined public benefits renewal forms that simplify and speed up processes for the public, the state announced Wednesday.

These new forms — which are also accompanied by an online component — improve user experience for the state’s four largest public assistance programs. What this means is that they will affect and improve the experience for the state’s 2 million recipients of food, health care, child care and cash assistance. This work, dubbed Project Re:New, was carried out by a partnership between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Detroit-based design company, Civilla.

The work began in 2018, and, essentially, it involved applying human-centered research and design techniques to the benefits renewal process. Doing this means spending time interviewing and observing users of forms to identify pain points, such as redundant or hard-to-answer questions, for one example. Subsequent steps involve eliminating those pain points and then observing again to understand how it changed the process, with an eye toward creating renewal forms that are easy to understand and easy to fill-out, with corresponding infrastructure put in place for responding in a more transparent and timely manner to those applications.

This is especially meaningful work as it applies to public benefits renewal because improving the ease and speed of applications in that arena can eliminate stressful gaps in benefits for users, as well as save time and energy on staffers with the state who assist the public. 

“It’s win-win for everybody,” said Terry Beurer, the senior deputy director of the economic stability administration in the MDHHS. “Any way we’re able to streamline the process and have people get access to the benefits they’re entitled to in a quick and accurate way, the better off everyone is.”

If this all seems familiar it’s because this work grew out of a similar project conducted by Civilla and the MDHHS in recent years. That work, dubbed Project Re:Form, took the initial benefits application form, which was said to be the longest public benefits form in the country, and streamline it. The work received widespread interest and acclaim within the public sector, and this work is a direct extension of it, right down to the similar names. Staffers at Civilla described the renewal project as “building on the work we did around the application.”

Lena Selzer, design director at Civilla, said it was coincidental but fortunate that the form was being rolled out and tested as COVID-19 struck, giving the state a much-needed tool to both help residents in need and reduce the necessity of in-person interactions.

“It’s been really amazing to see the impact of the work in this moment,” Selzer said. “We’d seen that previously, but this moment really demonstrated the value of the work.”

Another major facet of the recent effort is that it is also accompanied by a substantial online component. This work was centered around MI Bridges, which is the state’s online assistance application and case management portal. The same human-centered research and design techniques were applied around two groups: residents applying for or managing benefits through the portal, and community partner organizations that help government agencies by assisting clients with their benefits.

A lot of the work on MI Bridges was done to create a better experience for users who access it through mobile devices, which are often more common in underserved communities than desktop computers with reliable Internet connections. 

The designers wanted to create a process that was far more intuitive than the one often found within state government, which tends to involve lots of PDFs as well as the copying and pasting of information.

“You really have to think differently about how someone moves through it and how to break it up into smaller pieces, especially when someone is using a mobile phone,” Selzer said.

The end result of that effort was a mobile-friendly online portal that can be used to apply for benefits, report changes and even upload requested forms with just the use of a smartphone, rather than having to send them or bring them in in person. Not turning in documents on time is a common barrier to benefit renewal. In addition, the new online portal also sends text and email reminders for clients who are nearing deadlines.

As for what comes next with the work, Civilla Co-Founder and CEO Michael Brennan said the plan has been to get the work deeply rooted in Michigan before potentially scaling it to other states. Civilla, however, is now working with its first state outside of Michigan, and while that state hasn’t announced the work yet, for Civilla the goal is to both help them better serve their residents while at the same time determining what facets of the Michigan work can be easily shared across state lines.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.