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Designing communication that works for your customers, or "Don't lose your benefits!"

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Partners in Public Innovation's founder Ryan Hunter worked alongside his fellow colleagues in San Francisco through a three-day improvement event in 2017 with ten staff from SF BenefitsNet, the City agency that administers CalFresh benefits (food stamps).

Clients in the group waiting area wait to speak to a staff person.

What was the focus of the improvement event?

Low-income individuals and families eligible or enrolled in CalFresh were at risk of losing the benefits needed to feed themselves or their families due to missing deadlines or otherwise inadvertently failing to meet CalFresh program requirements. These individuals and families, who are constantly faced with unnecessary burdens, were not intending to lose their registration of benefits, yet were failing to provide the necessary documentation on the timeline expected to keep them going. Helping clients avoid confusion would save time for both clients and staff and likely keep clients from falling off benefits. As a critical pillar to maintaining their everyday livelihood, these benefits that CalFresh provided were crucial to receive.

"But all of the information someone would need to know or find in order to follow the benefit enrollment process is already provided - is there really a better way of doing things?" This question, which is similar to those we hear often, is framed in way in which we likely try to problem solve. There is an assumption that there must be human-error to the process which is preventing the end user from doing something right and quick the first time. However, we must avoid this knee-jerk reaction to confirm that all of the information is present, and instead ask, "Is all the information presented in a way that matches the user's needs and experiences?"

Spoiler alert: there's always room for improving the user experience.

Improvement team members receive feedback from other SF BenefitsNet eligibility workers on their prototype that explains client expectations following the interview.

After creating their problem statement and determining why change was needed, the project team drilled into the root causes for these issues. The team found:

(1) issues with standards: eligibility workers ask inconsistent questions during client interviews and explain requirements differently;

(2) communications not clear: language used in notices sent to clients is wordy, complex, vague, and/or misleading; and

(3) lack of communication: clients are not notified if documents are received, missing, or unacceptable; nor do clients know what is expected of them throughout the benefits cycle.

These root causes might apply to this specific process, but these types of root causes (non-standardized procedures and lack of or unclear communication) are common contributing factors in most processes ripe for improvement.

As the project team brainstormed potential solutions to address the root causes, they were taking into account the customer's, or user's, perspective to frame the experience from the other side. The project team tested improvements through quick prototypes, soliciting rapid feedback from other eligibility workers and from SF BenefitsNet and agency leadership:

• Designing visual examples of documents

• Revising county forms to make them easier

• Drafting appointment reminders and text messages to notify clients when their forms have been received

• Developing standard language for eligibility workers to use on income verification requests to clients

• Creating a method to track how often workers give clients the option to sign applications electronically

The initiatives the team decided on to improve the process included: making forms easier for clients to understand; creating lobby posters so clients know what documents they need; removing unneeded, confusing materials from the client interview packet; and establishing a practice of using a standard checklist to set clients’ expectations for requirements during the year-long benefits renewal cycle.

As an added bonus to these solutions, a Senior Eligibility Worker saved over $2,500 by simply reorganizing forms used in his client interviews. This Senior Eligibility Worker noticed that he was spending 5-15 minutes per interview walking across the office and looking for the physical forms he needed to provide clients regarding the locally funded programs provided public aid. Instead of spending those few minutes PER interview, he started making special pocket folders that included all of the forms necessary.The Senior Eligibility Worker estimated that this easy-to-implement solution saves about $2,773 per year for his division.

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