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Minn. Hones Its ‘Human-Centered’ Benefits Web, Mobile Portal

Minnesota aims to have its simpler, more streamlined benefits application portal available statewide by the end of the year. The site’s deeper focus on user experience marks a growing trend for the state.

A screenshot of the MNBenefits home page.
By the end of the year, Minnesota plans to take its new streamlined benefits application portal statewide.

The portal takes what is often an hourlong application process via paper forms or via the old website and trims it down to a 12-minute task, Chuck Johnson, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, told Government Technology.

On the new site, users can go through a single process to apply for cash and emergency assistance, child care assistance, housing support and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or any combination of these, and do so in English or Spanish. Residents can also upload documents and get help via a live chat feature.

“We really wanted to drive down that amount of time, make the experience simpler for the Minnesotan who would be applying, make this system just easier to navigate [with] more plain language and ultimately yield a more efficient process,” said Jon Eichten, deputy commissioner of Minnesota IT Services.

Civic tech nonprofit Code for America worked with the state and counties to create the offering, which debuted in pilot mode during September 2020. That first launch served two counties, including Hennepin County, where Kate Heffernan Carson is senior department administrator.

She told GovTech the portal’s resident-centered approach is key to fostering good relationships between government and the people it serves.

“It’s refreshing for them [users] to see something come from governments, from some of these public assistance programs, that’s so easy and user-friendly and so well thought-out in terms of what their experience is,” Heffernan Carson said. “That really builds trust with the residents from the beginning of their experience and helps us try to continue to build on that trust, rather than starting off at a point of frustration.”

The service is currently live with 16 counties and one tribal nation, with two more tribes lining up to join this month, said Dustin Palmer, associate program director for Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative. Wider expansion will kick off in November and reach all 87 counties in Minnesota by year’s end, Eichten said.

ACCESS CHALLENGES


Counties administer the state’s safety net programs, and officials have been concerned about inconvenient processes even before the pandemic deepened the problem. Heffernan Carson said the previous website, ApplyMN, was clunky and time-consuming to use and didn’t work well on some devices.

ApplyMN also directs non-English speakers to call a number for help, rather than providing translations online.

In Hennepin County, the pandemic closed down offices where applicants might go for in-person help. Residents who couldn’t use the website were left navigating the application process via phone calls with staff and delivering documents via mail or to physical drop-off boxes, Heffernan Carson said.

State officials also became increasingly aware of the need for smartphone-friendly experiences during an earlier collaboration with Code for America around distributing Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) aid, Eichten said. This collaboration uncovered that 80 percent of P-EBT applications come in via mobile devices, suggesting that a more mobile-focused benefits platform would both improve experiences for existing customers and allow more residents to apply.

Still, not everyone may have a device or be comfortable with one. Traditional paper-based applications will also remain available, and county staff can demonstrate to visitors how to access the site, Johnson said. Residents in some counties will also be able to use the portal on kiosks within county offices, Eichten said.

FRESH FEATURES


Code for America sought to design the benefits platform around applicant and county staff experiences, and kept in close communication with frontline workers and other personnel about areas for improvement.

One new feature enables residents who have already submitted applications to then digitally add documents backing up their cases. Previously, applicants might have had to fax or mail in such files — a time-eating step — but now they can upload files or photos from their devices, Heffernan Carson said.

Features like these are driving strong uptake, with MNBenefits becoming one of the most used application methods in Hennepin County. The county currently receives 106 applications a day on average via the portal, compared to just a handful that would trickle in through the previous website, Heffernan Carson said.

Various counties have reported that the features ease their own work, with the new document collection capability making that step simpler and more reliable than waiting for items in the mail, Palmer said. Participating counties have also indicated that the more intuitive processes mean fewer residents need staff help completing applications, Johnson said.

Roughly 45 percent of Minnesota’s population can currently access MNBenefits, and feedback thus far has been encouraging, Eichten said. A mechanism allowing individuals to rate their experience found that 72 percent of users are satisfied, with 1 percent unsatisfied and 27 percent neutral.

Despite the rollout efforts, a “pretty small fraction” of the state’s overall benefits applicants have tried the portal, with counties each deciding how many users to introduce it to, Johnson said. The pilot drew 34,000 applicants by Oct. 8, 2021. In comparison, Minnesota received 20,251 housing assistance applications and 222,203 SNAP applications during the month of August 2021.

BEHIND THE SCENES


MNBenefits has a revamped user interface that connects to the county’s existing case management systems. Freshening up the front end while leaving the back end alone allowed the state to make changes fast without having to wait for a more comprehensive modernization effort, Eichten said.

Connecting to existing back ends required developers to adjust for counties’ different technological setups, Palmer said. Counties vary in their use of automation or particular software, and the developers had to build some county-specific tweaks. Where possible, though, Code for America sought to avoid intensive county-by-county customizations if training and onboarding would be enough to help public employees use the system.

Palmer said Code for America wanted to learn early on if the portal would struggle to meet counties’ needs. This concern led the organization to include in its early user base both the state’s largest county, Hennepin, and one of its more rural ones, Wabasha, with 2019 populations of 1.2 million and 21,000, respectively.

The benefits portal is also transitioning out of Code for America’s management to become fully maintained and operated by public employees by Jan. 1, Palmer said. The site is almost fully run on the state’s technical infrastructure, a move that saw the website change from .org to .gov in late September.

Smoothing that handoff required Code for America to work closely with the state to understand how MNBenefits needed to fit into its existing practices and systems. That meant programming the site in Java, which the state already has staff trained on, instead of the Ruby programming language Code for America most often uses, Palmer said.

MORE TO COME?


Minnesota’s push to improve user experience for benefit applicants comes as part of a wider shift in how the state approaches resident services, state officials said.

“We’re looking at it as an initial step into a broader modernization of how we deliver services to people, that makes it simpler for people to interact with us,” including by making communications easier and more digital, Johnson said.

Johnson is also interested in finding ways to add health-care applications to the portal, which could be a convenience for the many people who use both SNAP and Medicaid. That had been an initial goal of the program, but health care involves a different kind of back-end system, meaning further work is needed to navigate integrations.

Eichten said other teams and agencies may be able to take advantage of a platform like this, and that the state is increasingly looking to prioritize user experiences. The vision is to reduce the complexity of state websites and let residents access services from different departments all in one spot.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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