By Nancy Augustine, Director, Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships
With the support of the Center for Accountability, Management, and Innovation (CAMI), the National Academy of Public Administration’s Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships (CIP) hosted a series of convenings in 2022 to examine the delivery model for public benefits. The meetings brought together researchers, advocates, practitioners, technologists, and public sector associations to develop a vision for a modernized public benefits system and recommend strategies to eliminate obstacles hindering innovation and optimization. This white paper captures this group’s vision of a modernized public benefits system that decenters compliance-based administrative functions and recenters a holistic customer-centric experience—emphasizing efficiency, efficacy, and expediency. It provides a roadmap for policy makers to begin the process of transformation.
One important finding of the paper is that despite the obstacles, many states have developed innovative options for eligible households to access benefits. For example, many states allow people to sign up for social service benefits through online portals. Some portals are better integrated than others. A 2021 report by the American Public Human Services Association describes how several states adapted their operations in response to the pandemic, using options allowed by the federal government. Code for America has also launched a multi-year project to help states integrate benefits, focusing on the client and customer experience.
Several states have streamlined or consolidated eligibility determinations by using information already available. For example, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a program under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that allows high-poverty schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring individual eligibility applications. Under CEP, schools use a formula to determine the percentage of low-income students based on the number of students who are directly certified for free meals because they live in households that participate in other government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If the percentage of directly certified students in a school is above a certain threshold (usually 40%), then the entire school is eligible for free meals for all students. In the 2021-2022 school year, 33,300 schools in 5,543 districts participated. School districts participating in NSLP must certify individual children’s eligibility directly based on the family’s participation in SNAP.
Direct certification automatically qualifies individuals for program benefits based on their participation in other government programs or status as a specific group member. For example, in the NSLP, schools can use direct certification to automatically enroll students based on their eligibility for other means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Cross-eligibility determinations can qualify an individual or family for multiple benefits from different programs. Customer experience and program administration efficiency improvements occur when public benefits agencies can leverage technology solutions, such as integrated eligibility systems (IES), to streamline cross-eligibility determinations. These systems can help to reduce duplicative processes and improve the coordination of benefits. An IES integrates information from multiple databases and sources, such as income, employment, housing, and health records, to comprehensively view an individual’s circumstances. The system can allow individuals to apply for multiple programs. It typically includes online applications, automated eligibility determination, and case management tools to help caseworkers manage cases and provide ongoing support to eligible households. These systems can improve the efficiency and accuracy of benefit delivery, streamline the application process, and reduce the administrative burden on government agencies.
For example, Illinois switched to an IES in 2017. It integrates data from multiple social service programs, including Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF. For medical benefits recertification, the system automatically generates clearance data and known case information for recipients to verify.
Code for America partnered with the Minnesota Department of Human Services in 2020 to develop MNBenefits, which allows users to apply for nine programs through a single online portal. Feedback from recipients and data analytics allowed the development team to finetune the system and gain insight into the client journey. MNBenefits uses a client-centered approach to eligibility determination, which means that it focuses on the needs and circumstances of the applicant rather than the specific program requirements.
New York State is developing an IES, aiming for a “no wrong door” standard for nutrition assistance programs. It integrates information from multiple databases, including income, employment, and immigration status, to determine eligibility for SNAP and other benefits. Applicants can submit documents electronically. A mobile application allows users to view their benefits, check their certification status, and report changes in their circumstances, such as a change in income, household composition, or employment status.
California counties are collaborating to develop an automated, integrated eligibility and case management system. CalSAWS will be the case management system for CalWORKs, CalFresh, Medi-Cal, Foster Care, Refugee Assistance, County Medical Services Program, and General Assistance/General Relief in all 58 California counties. The system is expected to be online by the end of 2023.
Data-sharing agreements underlie IES, allowing agencies to share information about individuals’ eligibility for different programs. These agreements can reduce the need for duplicative determination, documentation, and verification processes. For example, California’s Health and Human Services Data Exchange Framework is developing a means for healthcare providers, government agencies, and social services programs to share patient information safely, beginning in 2024.
Standardized data elements and formats for social service programs can pave the way for data-sharing. For example, the North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology (NC FAST) uses the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) to improve the speed and accuracy of information exchanges with other government systems. NIEM is a community-driven, standards-based approach to exchanging information between organizations, including social service programs and agencies. The model provides a common vocabulary and framework for defining data elements and formats, allowing different programs and agencies to share and integrate data more easily. This approach can help improve coordination and collaboration across multiple programs and agencies and improve the overall effectiveness of social service programs by reducing duplication of effort and improving access to relevant data.
For more information about public benefits modernization, access the white paper “Modernizing Public Benefits Delivery: How Innovation Can Deliver Results for Eligible Households and Taxpayers,” listen to an episode of the Management Matters podcast, or view a recording of the June 15 paper release event, featuring Academy Fellow and Board Member Stan Soloway (Celero Strategies and CAMI), Rashida Brown (National Association of Counties), Doug Howard (Maximus), and Jessica Maneely (American Public Human Services Association).