Open, Accountable Government
Benefits Finder: A Path through the Government Benefits Maze
by Sean Moulton, 10/22/2013
E-Gov Spotlights: Given the importance of websites and online tools to inform the public about major issues and government activities, the Center for Effective Government is publishing an ongoing series of articles to evaluate government's use of online technology. Each article explores the purpose of an agency's site or tool, its strengths and weaknesses, and offers recommendations on how their efforts might be enhanced.
The recent government shutdown shuttered some websites and left others frozen without up-to-date information. Benefits.gov, a one-stop-shop for government benefits assistance, was among the government websites that remained online, but without ongoing updates. The site, which helps citizens assess their eligibility for more than 1,000 governmental assistance programs across 17 different agencies, is a critical service for the public.
The Benefits.gov site, established in 2002, was developed to make it easier for citizens to learn about government assistance programs that may be available to them, including program summaries, eligibility, and application processes. Citizens can access information on programs from food stamps to energy efficiency home upgrade loans. The Department of Labor manages the site, though a total of 17 agencies collaborate to achieve the large scope of the site's coverage.
The site boasts more than 50 million unique visitors since its launch and has received numerous awards. In 2012, Benefits.gov released a mobile access format in response to a significant increase in visits from mobile phone users. Today, its resources are available on any computer or mobile device in both English and Spanish.
Using the Site
Citizens can simply browse Benefits.gov to learn about available benefits based on the type of benefit (such as tax credits), the agency that administers the program, or the state where they live. Periodic news articles highlight higher-profile assistance programs such as a recent article explaining the new health insurance marketplaces being established under the Affordable Care Act. The site also offers materials to help community advocates educate and assist those in need.
The real strength of Benefits.gov is Benefit Finder, a tool that identifies programs the user may qualify for based on information the user provides relating to his or her circumstances, e.g., income level, health status, or work experience. Benefit Finder, which is essentially a simple survey, allows users to quickly identify and explore a range of programs, from Emergency Farm Loans that help family farms hurt by natural disasters to federal student aid.
After responding to a series of questions about one's household, education, health, income, and work experience, users can click on the "View Results" tab to obtain further details on potential assistance programs such as specific qualifications and application processes. For instance, a low-income user might see the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly referred to as Food Stamps) on the list of possible assistance programs.
The BenefitsFinder prompts users to specify what types of benefits programs visitors are looking for information on, though you can select multiple categories. For example, parents with a child about to go to college might search for Grants/Scholarships/Fellowships benefits, which easily yields over 30 resources ranging from payments for school tuition to accessing block grants for mental health.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Overall, the site is easy to navigate. Its accessibility from mobile devices is a significant plus, especially as lower-income residents often use mobile devices rather than computers. The site's availability in both English and Spanish also significantly expands the scope of those who can use it. However, expanding to more languages would improve the site even more and make this information accessible to large new segments of users.
The Benefit Finder tool deserves particular praise as it utilizes a simple and easy-to-use method to find benefits. By starting with the characteristics of the user, the site offers the possibility of identifying available assistance that the user may have been completely unaware of. On the other hand, the site may provide too many results and programs that may not be relevant to the user because the search terms are imprecise. This is a difficult problem to address without risking overly narrowing search results or making the survey more complicated.
The site also allows users to add programs from the search results into a set of favorites. However, it does not let users remove individual programs from the results or otherwise indicate that they aren't interested in certain programs, which would be helpful for users who want to filter out results that aren't relevant to them. The site could also prompt users to answer pertinent additional questions to refine the search results based on eligibility.
Another weakness is that the site cannot be used to apply directly for benefits once a user sees that he or she is potentially eligible. The site does provide users with information about how to apply and/or where to go to learn more about each program, which is useful, but users have to leave the site and go onto other government websites to apply for the programs. It would be a significant improvement if the site could integrate the websites so that an individual could apply directly from the Benefit Finder results.
Another strength is the fact that the survey is anonymous, so users can explore resources with privacy. Users can save information about a certain program to the site's Favorites tab in order to retrieve it later during the same online session or send a copy to an e-mail account. However, since the site does not collect users' personal information, the Benefit Finder results are discarded once a user leaves the site. Given the amount of information the site provides, it could take users more than one session to review the data and apply for programs. The site might consider giving users the option to establish a login account to save their results and favorites between sessions. This would preserve the ability to search anonymously but allow users to save found information to be used more easily over an extended period.
Benefits.gov provides an easily accessible and private tool for citizens to identify the benefits that may be available to them without needing to consult with multiple agencies or navigate complex government websites. Though the platform has weaknesses, it performs well in light of its goal of improving citizen access to benefits information. The site is a responsive, high-utility e-government service that is innovative and expands public access to critically important government eligibility information in a very user-friendly format.
Becky Rubenstrunk conducted the research for this article.