Project One Day

building a one-day application process for Michigan’s largest benefit programs

background

each year, more than 2.5 million Michigan residents apply for public benefits from the Department of Health and Human Services, often waiting on a 20+ day approval process

context

To receive public benefits, residents are required to apply and then wait for a decision on their eligibility

Frontline staff in county offices across Michigan process each family’s application. A single staff member can be responsible for over 600 cases, including processing applications, renewals, changes, phone calls, and verifications.

the challenge

due to the labor-intensive application process, frontline staff were spread thin and residents were kept in limbo as they waited

The waiting period exacerbated existing stress on residents during a vulnerable time as they tried to keep their family fed, write rent checks, and get medications filled. Faced with substantial workloads, staff were underwater as they worked to meet residents’ needs.

A week can feel like forever if you are in crisis. I’m trying to take care of a household and my baby. When things go wrong it creates stress on top of the normal, everyday stress of things.

— ResidentMichigan

Our goal was to make one day processing possible for the majority of applicants for Michigan's benefits programs

research

The Civilla team partnered with state leaders to reimagine how benefits were determined and create a more efficient, people-centered process

the research process

we invested hundreds of hours in human-centered research, learning how the legacy process functioned for both frontline staff and residents

Together, we mapped out the typical benefits application experience. This process usually took about 20+ days from start to finish. But there wasn’t a guarantee that a resident would receive benefits, even if they qualified for them. Residents who were denied often reapplied — starting the process all over again.

applicant needs

minimizing uncertainty and instability in a moment of crisis

When residents experience a crisis like losing their job or getting injured, public benefits programs are a crucial lifeline to pay for food or replace employer-provided benefits like healthcare.

A simplified benefits application process would help avoid back-and-forth with frontline staff, reduce chances for procedural errors, and set residents up to successfully navigate the process with confidence and assurance.

[Due to my injury] I can’t even move off of the couch. They were so concerned with how much [money] I make, and not what I was going through at the moment.

— Benefits applicantMichigan

frontline staff needs

too many cases, not enough time

With the legacy process, frontline staff needed to navigate multiple steps and reach out to residents several times to process each case. This drew out the determination timeline and added unnecessary complexity to an already stressful workload.

Staff could spend more time supporting residents if they were able to sit down and process an application in one go.

The pressure workers feel to process applications in high volume with complete accuracy is exhausting, leaving workers feeling bitter and some in frustrated tears.

— Frontline staffMDHHS

design

Based on user research, Civilla reshaped the underlying policy and process to make one day determinations possible for staff and residents alike

policy changes

we conducted a policy analysis of each benefit program to find opportunities to streamline the application experience

Our research showed that across the U.S., there were many examples of policies to help make the benefits determination process simpler. Drawing on these examples, we worked with Michigan leaders to adopt key changes. Now, residents can self-attest to shelter and utility expenses, as well as assets under $15,000. This eliminates the need for frontline staff to collect additional documents like bank statements and leases.

business process

After shadowing and interviewing frontline staff, Civilla redesigned the process with the north star goal of making one-day determinations possible

  • Two-hour registration+

    When a new benefits application is received, it’s registered within two hours to allow processing to begin.
  • Front-end processing+

    A caseworker is assigned to the application and verifies the resident’s employment in a database to collect key information up-front.
  • Two-call approach+

    The caseworker calls and leaves a voicemail so residents know who’s trying to reach them. They call again in a few minutes.
  • Verification collection+

    Caseworkers are now responsible for reaching out to third parties like employers and landlords to verify application information on the resident’s behalf.
  • Determination+

    Once all the necessary verifications and interviews are complete, frontline staff provide a decision for the resident on whether they qualify for the benefit.

pilot

Civilla and MDHHS piloted the new one-day process to test its feasibility and impact

To conduct the pilot, our team partnered with two MDHHS offices that served different residential demographics. We collected data and feedback across four main categories: timeliness, approvals, accuracy, and volume.

To see how well the new process worked, a group of frontline staff followed the pilot and tracked 815 cases total. Civilla developed a monthly scorecard for key metrics, which helped measure the impact.

Over the course of the pilot, we also evaluated and worked to resolve tradeoffs, such as increased up-front workload for staff and perceptions around resident self-sufficiency raised by staff handling the verification process.

50+%

of applications were determined within one day

>90%

of applications were registered in two hours or less

15%

increase in resident responses to calls

30%

of income verifications streamlined through third-party data

15%

increase in approvals for benefits
It is really nice when you can certify an application from start to finish. I’m proud of being able to get something accomplished so efficiently for my clients. It’s nice to have the application processed and know that the client is happy.

— Frontline staffMDHHS

Implementation

based on the success of the pilot program, MDHHS decided to roll out Project One Day statewide through a phased implementation process

training

Civilla incorporated what we learned from the pilot into the implementation strategy

The team designed interactive small-group trainings to set staff, managers, and leaders up for success in local offices. This made it easier for participants to share ideas and ask questions. The training encouraged a “train-the-trainer” model, where office management could deliver One Day to their own teams. We made improvements based on feedback, like adding peer-to-peer learning and role playing scenarios.

It meant a lot that it didn’t take two months. It’s not like I wanted to apply for food assistance, I’m just in a really bad situation right now. It’ll be temporary, so it was good to get help right away.

— ResidentMichigan

conclusion

Project One Day proved that one day processing is possible for public benefits delivery

With streamlined policies and processes, the pilot showed the potential to provide faster benefits delivery to residents in the state system.

Project One Day set a new standard for benefits delivery, establishing a higher bar for what is considered to be normal and accepted when serving low-income residents. With efficient access to the benefits that provide critical support, it proved the possibility for residents to move through crises and work toward stability with ease. While this method was not sustained statewide after Project One Day, thousands of residents' lives were impacted and received significantly better service.

Opportunities to scale

While change is never easy, Project One Day showed that it is possible. To achieve sustainable success, institutional leaders must be willing to take an honest look at the system they are trying to change, and create a process that will encourage cross-functional alignment and buy-in.


It is such a great feeling when I can call the resident, call their employer, and certify right away. Boom, boom, and you’re done!

— Frontline staffMDHHS