cloud services

County speeds rental assistance processing with cloud suite

The IT system Hamilton County, Ohio, used to process housing and rental assistance applications worked fine – until COVID hit, said Kevin Holt, an interim assistant director at the county’s Job and Family Services department.

A locally built, on-premise system, it crashed frequently when the county began processing Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds, frustrating staff and doing nothing to help a growing backlog of applications. So the department began working with Google Cloud to implement one of its mission-critical modules in its new suite of public benefit solutions – tools the company officially announced Nov. 3.

To use the tool, applicants go to the agency’s housing and utility relief website , enter and validate their email address – which helps prevent fraud, Holt said – and begin filling out the online form.

“I think of it as comparable to Turbo Tax – straightforward answers to 30 questions. Then you hit the submit button,” he said.

Because it’s web-based – and to ensure that all applicants have access to it – the agency put laptop-equipped staff members on a bus that drives to various communities in the county to help residents get signed up. So far, the bus has been to 52 communities and helped about 120 people per stop, Holt said.

Additionally, the agency has a contract with the local United Way, which can take applications over the phone and enter the information for applicants.

Agency staff then review the applications, make decisions and kick off the distribution of funds to eligible residents. With the previous system, each application might have taken staff about 12 minutes to process, Holt said. “On this, you’re running closer to eight minutes. When you’re doing as many applications as we are, that’s a big deal.”

The agency used to get 30 to 40 applications per day, but averages 180 per day now. Because word has gotten out that the county moves quickly to approve applications, its backlog has grown from about 500 to 1,300 in two weeks, Holt said.

It only took three months for the tool to be rolled out – an extraordinarily short window, given that most similar projects have taken 18 to 24 months, on average, he said. But the county had to move quickly to disperse its share of relief funds or face rescission by the government. So far, Hamilton County has processed $600,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds and about $15 million in its first round of the Treasury Department’s ERAP funds. It will start whittling away at another $20 million in ERAP and prepare to tackle $15 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds after that, Holt said.

“We deal in big dollars all the time; we’re a $2 billion organization. But our traditional role has been relatively stable and boring, so we do large sums of money over long periods of time,” he said. “What’s unusual for us – certainly these are big piles of money with CARES and ERAP and ARP – is the pace at which we have to get them out to the community.”

Other jurisdictions are tapping the Google Cloud suite in different ways. For instance, West Virginia is using it to help its 25,000 residents who are behind on rental payments get access to relief funds faster. The state’s existing system was unable to meet the exponential increase in applications for housing financial aid, so the West Virginia Housing Development Fund turned to Google Cloud’s Document AI, which automates data capture, to accelerate the process.

The benefits solution suite came about directly in response to the pandemic, said Denise Winkler, strategic business executive at Google Cloud who oversees work related to health and human services and labor. The company put a focus on housing and rental benefits first because that’s a crucial aspect of recovery, she added.

The suite is designed to help in four key areas: engaging constituents, such as through chatbots; enabling virtual service delivery; supporting the remote workforce’s need to share and collaborate; and delivering virtual training so that government workers are up to date on new technologies and processes.

Google Cloud took an iterative approach to building the modules to speed their development. “You needed to be able to have these in days and weeks. You couldn’t wait months and months to develop a … solution,” Winkler said.

The tools integrate with governments’ existing systems, mainly through application programming interfaces. “One of the beauties about the virtual agents is actually connecting them to the backend system, so not only can they answer routine questions, for example, but they can also execute routine tasks,” Winkler said, such as helping people change passwords or check the status of their application. These capabilities can be added in stages, so that the basic technology can be ready quickly and then refined over time.

This approach also means that the tools have utility beyond pandemic-related tasks, she said. “These things were enhancements to existing systems. We didn’t rip and replace anything. We enhanced and enabled what they already had. Now we’re moving into things that focus on recovery,” Winkler said.

For Hamilton County’s Holt, the bigger lesson learned is that partnering with the private sector is likely the future of managing IT, but he sees more opportunities in using tools like these public benefits modules on a grander scale.

“We did one thing right: We went to the private sector to get this done. We did one thing wrong: We did it locally,” Holt said. “This is something that should really be done at a regional or statewide level, because this tool is as useful in Cleveland as it is in Hamilton County, but they don’t know about it.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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