New guide looks to slash 'time tax' on benefits applications

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The project is one example of a Biden administration push to rework intake forms for government programs to be more user-friendly and less time consuming.

The White House’s U.S. Digital Service and the Office of Child Care at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families recently released a new model application and guide to simplifying application processes for federally funded child care assistance programs.

The guide is meant to help the state, tribal and territorial governments distributing the child care assistance simplify the application process by clarifying what federal law requires for the program, according to a March 29 USDS blog post.

About 1.4 million children from over 857,700 low-income families use child care assistance funded by the Child Care and Development Fund every month, according to HHS. Application requirements vary widely, the blog post says, with some requiring in-person interviews or hard-copy birth certificates and others having a one-page application. State administrators actually aren’t always clear on what is required to be in the application by law, according to the USDS post.

“The process of applying… should not be complicated, confusing, invasive, or frustrating for families, but all too often it is,” the guide reads. “Relatively simple changes to the application questions and definitions, layout, and required documents can make a big difference in reducing the ‘time tax’ to apply for assistance.”

Cross-agency applications

HHS and USDS aren’t the only agencies looking at how to simplify application processes for government programs.

Last month, the White House released details about nine cross-agency projects focused on improving customer experience, the term used by the White House to capture its efforts to refocus government services on the experiences of individuals using them.

Among the projects are efforts to cut down the time it takes to apply for means-tested benefit programs like food assistance to 20 minutes. Another project is aimed at retooling application processes by enabling automated determinations about whether an individual is eligible for a benefit using government data behind the scenes.

Streamlining backend data processes can help the government approve or deny applications faster, said Alicia Rouault, a CX lead at USDS who is working on the data services project, during a virtual event last week on customer experience work.

“When somebody has something like an unexpected medical bill, or a broken down car, or an unexpected bill, the difference between getting benefits in a week versus a month really matters,” Rouault said. “This is the difference between having to take out a predatory loan or falling behind in bills and gaining access quickly.”

The initial focus is improving backend data architecture so that fewer applicants have to send in more documentation or go in-person for an interview if their application for a government benefit can’t be verified initially, said Roualt.

Making improvements will involve both facilitating more data sharing between governments as well as increasing what data is checked to include more data to help verify self-employed and underbanked people. 

The root of the work is how the government itself is designed, said Amira Boland, who leads customer experience work at the Office of Management and Budget, at the same event last week.

“When individuals and organizations interact with any part of the federal government, they want that interaction to work seamlessly, yet our current service delivery is not always designed with the public's needs and priorities in mind,” said Boland. “The way our government works has come to be over more than two centuries with programs created by different laws, appropriations committees, agencies, bureaus, and even IT shops.”