Application programming interfaces can deliver better tools, data and reporting for benefit determinations without requiring significant upgrades to existing technology.
The pandemic-related economic upheaval has put an undeniable strain on social service delivery systems -- and specifically on the technology infrastructure used to process applications and deliver aid. Amid increased need, many of the federally implemented policies and assistance packages meant to provide additional funding to benefits programs also added new technical requirements, necessitating faster access to data. In many cases, with pressure to accommodate an extraordinary amount of activity -- paired with outdated technology -- systems broke down or significant backlogs developed as caseworkers navigated legislative changes and unprecedented demand.
According to a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, for every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits between March 22 and April 18, 2020, three to four additional people tried to apply but could not navigate through the system to file a claim. Further, two additional people for every 10 successful filers did not even try to apply because it was too difficult to do so. Even more recently, backlogs in application processes for affordable housing programs have made headlines, with millions of dollars available to help individuals in need, but distribution of those funds lagging.
It’s not a new problem. A 2018 survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government suggests that one-third of major state IT systems are from 2001 (or earlier) and are struggling to meet user demands. The federal government plans to spend over $100 billion this fiscal year on IT alone, but most of this will need to be allocated towards existing and “legacy” systems. Legacy systems are typically more costly to maintain, according to an April 2021 Government Accountability Office report.
Agency service organizations are learning that the need to leverage technology to manage constituent expectations is not going away anytime soon. With pressure in the public sector to allocate IT budgets toward existing systems rather than new ones, APIs (application programming interfaces) can offer the ability to capitalize on enterprise-level technology to quickly adapt existing systems, often without significant investments, to help deliver more accessible and efficient processes for applicants and caseworkers.
Many state agencies are already turning to APIs to help fill the gap between new needs and existing IT, making meaningful, near-term improvements to system performance. The flexibility of APIs can deliver better tools, data and reporting for benefit determinations without requiring significant upgrades to existing technology.
Integrate existing systems
Simply put, an API sends information between a website, app or software program and an end-user. An API receives a set of instructions from a source, such as an application, takes that request to a database, fetches the requested data or facilitates a set of actions, then returns a response to the source -- just as a waiter receives an order from a customer, relays the order to the kitchen, receives the food from the kitchen, then brings the meal to the customer.
Most states have legacy benefits administration systems that they are comfortable working within, and a wholesale change would take significant time and effort. But generally, these systems facilitate a set process: caseworkers receive an application within their benefits system, source different data to inform the determination process and finally manually enter that data into their systems in order to track determinations and re-certifications.
For agencies looking to improve efficiencies without a complete system overhaul, or to further capitalize on recent network investments, APIs can integrate some of those external or manual steps. For example, an API connection can automate and integrate third-party verification data into the agency platform. This typically cuts time and potential errors from back-and-forth manual entries. The API can be connected and assigned tasks that order, fetch, bring back and serve up a needed piece of information to keep a social service application quickly moving forward.
What does this mean for improving an agency’s speed-to-results? Take a recent integration by one state’s health and human services agency. To reduce manual entries from one platform to the next, the agency set out to integrate the state’s system used to determine eligibility across multiple benefits programs with a commercial income and employment verification solution. Leveraging APIs to integrate systems, the agency solved for the “swivel chair” of back-and-forth lookup and system entry. This improved delivery outcomes for more than 3 million individuals receiving benefits and saved caseworkers, on average, five to 10 minutes for each case, which is more than 350,000 hours.
Enable real-time, current, and efficient results
By leveraging an API that integrates current, automated employment and income information -- often the building blocks of eligibility criteria -- with an existing benefits platform, agencies can not only improve existing technology but can also help improve benefits determinations.
A pre-pandemic study from Equifax showed that wages can vary up to 20% month-over-month, a variation that likely increased since the onset of COVID-19. Leveraging APIs to access real-time income and employment data enables caseworkers to process applications more efficiently and monitor for changes in need. Especially during a period of high applicant volume, this approach can help reduce inefficient manual processes.
In summary, using APIs to implement a system-to-system approach enables states to facilitate a more seamless sharing of the information needed to make benefit decisions while also helping maintain program integrity, realize efficiencies and quickly provide aid to more applicants in need.
Juan Cole is vice president, strategy and solutions consulting for Equifax Government Services.