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A Better Way to Connect People with the Benefits They Need

Designed around the user and not the bureaucracy, an innovative Philadelphia program uses data-matching so applicants won't have to fill out multiple forms for different assistance programs.

More than 40 million U.S. workers — one out of every four — have filed unemployment claims since the coronavirus pandemic struck in mid-March, a historic surge accompanied by a flood of requests for state, local and federal benefits for everything from food assistance to income support to housing aid to health-care coverage. Many of these applicants are filing for these services for the first time and struggling with a daunting, overloaded application system.

Outdated, cumbersome and inefficient government processes have long stymied innovation and prevented people from accessing social services for which they are eligible, as we have written about for Governing and for our Data-Smart City Solutions site. Thankfully, there are programs like BenePhilly that have long been using data and technology — and trust — to make this process easier, more efficient and more humane. BenePhilly has helped more than 110,000 Philadelphians, both in and out the workforce, enroll in assistance programs and has unlocked over $350 million in benefits.

"Basically, people need help putting food on the table, feeding their household. They need help with health care. They need help so they can get back into the labor force," said ML Wernecke, who until recently was the policy director at Benefits Data Trust (BDT), the national nonprofit that oversees BenePhilly. Guided by its mission of helping people more easily apply for public benefits, BDT founded the innovative BenePhilly program in 2008 through a partnership with the state and the city.

The original partnership was aimed at low-income seniors, to help them apply for benefits over the phone. This model on its own was not unique, but BDT's innovation was to use data-matching so that seniors would not have to fill out multiple applications for different assistance programs. "Typically, if you qualify for one government program, you're eligible for others as well," Wernecke explained, "so the initial model was to cross-match state data on folks receiving one benefit but not another and find the gap." BDT sent people identified from the data-matching process a letter letting them know they were likely eligible for another form of assistance and providing the phone number for the BenePhilly contact center, where an operator could helped enroll callers.

By 2014, the program had expanded to include in-person service in different parts of the city, in alignment with the city's anti-poverty Shared Prosperity Philadelphia plan. And BenePhilly expanded services beyond seniors and senior-specific assistance programs to cross-match data for other individuals and households. As a result, eligible residents could enroll in multiple programs with just one call or in-person appointment, instead of searching out individual programs and filling out several duplicative applications. Both the state and the city became important data-sharing and funding partners when the program expanded.

Now, the program has changed again, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BDT has gone totally virtual, and most of its partner community-based organizations closed their in-person services — just as they saw a massive increase in calls. Wernecke said the BenePhilly hotline's call volume for the week of May 18 was nearly four times the weekly call average pre-COVID. BDT had to hire and (remotely) train more benefits outreach specialists to manage the increase in calls.

Luckily for Philadelphians in need, the transition to virtual operation was a smooth one, and BenePhilly didn't experience significant service interruptions as its 100-person contact center moved online. This is an impressive feat that was helped by the strong technology solutions and data systems BenePhilly uses, digital progress that is crucially important as we quickly move toward contactless government.

The key to the success of the BenePhilly solution, which was a finalist for the 2020 Harvard Kennedy School Innovations in American Government Award, is that it is designed around the user, not the bureaucracy. Not only is it frustrating for applicants to have to fill out multiple applications for benefits, but this type of inefficiency wastes time for government as well. For other jurisdictions that want to adopt the BenePhilly approach to streamlining processes, Wernecke recommends building on existing technology and using software solutions that have been tested for this work. And having reliable data from partners at community-based organizations helps to quickly determine who is eligible for which benefits, unlocking multiple forms of assistance at one time.

The end of the coronavirus pandemic isn't in sight. What is clear is that there is a long road ahead to economic recovery. We need more data-driven programs that, like BenePhilly, efficiently and easily connect individuals and families to badly needed benefits. We are at a national crossroads, but many innovations are born of necessity, and the widespread adoption of the BenePhilly model could be a, well, benefit for us all.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University.
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