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How User Research Can Improve Application Processes

Does your government agency run a program or service that requires people to apply? And do you find that a significant or surprising number of people who seem like they ought to be eligible are being rejected?

There could be myriad reasons for this. By doing qualitative and/or quantitative research into the reasons for rejection and the experiences that applicants are having, you can learn more about people’s journeys through your process and use these insights to design and implement interventions that deliver a better experience for the public — and potentially your own staff, too!

Case Study: Improving Access to SNAP Food Assistance in Los Angeles County

In 2019, some of my colleagues at Code for America worked with Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services to understand how to improve upon their 49% average approval rate. They found that “missed interviews drove the low approval rate, with one in three applications in Los Angeles County denied for this procedural reason [while] only 6% of LA applications were denied for ineligibility.”

The team then surveyed people who were denied due to a missed interview, finding that people faced a range of problems, such as: receiving the date and time after it had already passed, being unable to reschedule, and not hearing from caseworkers.

Following this quantitative work, the team switched to using some qualitative methods to gain a deeper understanding. Through extensive observation and interviews with both applicants and caseworkers, they found challenges and opportunities. Together with the county, they designed a pilot initiative that allowed people to simply call at a time convenient for them instead of having a scheduled interview. 

This pilot process improved outcomes. Among other positive findings, data showed that people who called the new flexible phone line got a benefit determination about a week sooner and had an 11% increase in their approval rate.

Doing It Yourself

It’s important to not let perfect be the enemy of the good. You don’t need to have a staff of full-time researchers to do this. Even basic research is better than nothing!

If you’re just starting out and have limited resources, try this formula:

  1. Get data on the reasons for rejection. It would be ideal if you can find structured data that already offers categorized reasons, so that you can see a numerical count. If this is not available but written comments are, you could go through those comments. If there are too many comments to sort through, you can look at just a random sample of them (here’s how to do it in Excel).
  2. Interview both applicants and internal staff. Try for at least five of each. See our qualitative research guide for extensive advice on how to do this.
  3. Synthesize and prioritize. Make a list of key challenges that emerged from the interviews, then for each one try to approximate how much effort you would need to address it. Next, select just one issue to focus on addressing for now; you won’t be able to solve all problems at once, and trying to can be overwhelming.
  4. Test your pilot idea, and measure to see if it makes a difference. You can look at metrics like the amount of time it takes applications to be processed and the percentage of applications rejected for ineligibility vs. procedural issues. 
  5. If you are successful and want to keep improving, repeat steps 2–4.

If even this sounds overwhelming, you can simplify further. The most important thing is trying to do something to delve into reasons for rejection and pilot solutions that improve the experience for applicants and ideally improve acceptance rates for eligible applications. It all comes down to trying to make government services more human-centered, so they can serve people effectively while treating them with dignity and respect.

Greg is the Associate Director for Human-Centered Government at Code for America, where he is leading efforts to support public servants with resources and training on the organization’s principles and practices for how government can and should serve the public in the digital age.

Image by Kindel Media on Pexels.com.

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