New Apps May Make Giving and Getting Government Aid Easier

Mobile technology has made a belated but much needed debut in human services.

L.A. County has launched a host of mobile apps to serve its clients.
Los Angeles County DPPS
Human services agencies have never really been on the technological cutting edge. These are organizations where the ways of doing things have often been entrenched for years, and these agencies typically have been slow to adopt innovative technologies to improve the way services are delivered to the poor.

But as with the rest of government, unrelenting tight budgets have human services agencies up against the wall, forcing them to adopt changes, including new technologies, in order to survive with fewer resources. One of those changes is the adoption of self-service delivery using mobile technology -- akin to some of the more innovative practices already taking place in the private sector, including retail, banking and insurance companies.

What makes this change promising is the fact that so many of the clients served by human services -- the poor, the out of work, the disabled, even the elderly -- already have the technology needed to make self-service feasible: a smartphone. Mobile access is a big deal for lower-income populations, according to the Pew Research Center. One-third of families earning less than $20,000 don’t go online at home, while another third do go online but don’t have broadband access. But smartphone ownership is strong, exceeding 75 percent for those ages 18-29, making mobile devices the primary means for getting online for low-income adults.

In Oklahoma, noncustodial parents can now make child support payments via a new mobile-friendly website. In Nebraska, parents receiving child support can make cash payments at certain retail stores, such as 7-Eleven, by downloading a payment code to their phone from the state’s child support website. Store cashiers scan the code and accept it as cash. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working with a private company to develop a secure method for food stamp recipients to make purchases with their phones at farmers markets.

The biggest effort so far is in Los Angeles County, where the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) has launched a host of mobile apps to serve its clients. One lets users capture images of pay stubs, attendance records and other documents and upload them to their case files for review by caseworkers. Another mobile app provides a link to users’ cash or food stamp account for up-to-date information on their balances, while another uses the GPS feature in the phone to help users locate the nearest bank, store or ATM that will provide benefits without a surcharge. The county has also set up self-service kiosks in the lobbies of its buildings, using tablets and other mobile devices, providing clients with yet another way to transact business with DPSS without having to set up an appointment or wait for help (DPSS does have staff available in the lobby to assist with the technology).

Michael Sylvester, assistant director of the DPSS Bureau of Contract and Technical Services, says the rapid adoption of mobile technology has driven his agency to create new ways to deliver services. “We don’t have to spend endless hours training people how to use [apps]; they already know,” he says. Even elderly users who may not be familiar with the technology usually have a family member who can help guide them. “That opened our eyes that we shouldn’t presume limitations about what our customer population can actually take advantage of,” Sylvester says. “We just need to make it available in a convenient form.”

Using mobile technology isn’t just about convenience. It’s also about money. An average-size state agency could save up to $14 million annually by relying on mobile apps instead of in-person interactions, according to a study by Accenture.

The good news, at least as Sylvester sees it, is that getting the clients of human services agencies to use mobile technology should be pretty easy. “We haven’t really had to spend a lot of money on marketing,” he says, “because it’s taking off on its own.”

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.