With CiviForm -- an open source, shared software tool – Bloomington has streamlined the application process for scholarships, utilities assistance and IT equipment donations.
To make it easier for residents to apply for government assistance – and to facilitate management of those programs – Bloomington, Indiana, is deploying digital forms.
Through pro bono support from 12 embedded Google.org Fellows, the city will pilot test CiviForm, an open source, shared software tool. The work, which started in June and runs for six months, is in three areas: scholarship applications for the Parks and Recreation Department, utilities assistance through the South Central Community Action Program and donation of end-of-life computers and devices to local not-for-profits. The Information and Technology Services (ITS) Department handles the latter and is leading the CiviForm effort.
“We can’t force everyone to use a technology platform because it’s not going to be accessible to all potential users for a number of different reasons, but using a system like this does have a lot of power to help us be more efficient and effective in distributing these kind of benefits and doing so without as much of an administrative barrier as is currently present,” ITS Director Rick Dietz said. “To me, that’s one of the important parts of this – not only is the system powerful and able to address these needs, but it also gives us a framework that we’re working through with three different groups to be able to identify and improve the application processes for the public.”
The plan is to establish a portal or landing page to access the forms, which he said will be fully ready within two months. That will allow applicants to see all of the benefits they are eligible for and to reuse the data they submit once to apply for all of them. At first, they will see only the three options, but if the pilot test proves successful, ITS can pull other forms into the framework, Dietz said.
“It’s something that we will largely maintain within my department, and we have the capacity to update the open source software as needed,” he said. Although standing up the pilot is free, Dietz said he expects to have to invest staff time to maintaining and growing the project, “but [it’s] nothing that would be cost- or productivity-prohibitive for us to do.”
The city selected the three initial forms because of the programs’ broad use and potential for streamlining. For instance, ITS has historically emailed not-for-profits and tracked on a spreadsheet what end-of-life computers they donate. “This would be a more public process,” Dietz said, adding that the parks department program currently uses a paper-based process that requires scholarship applications be notarized.
For the utility assistance program, currently residents call the utility, which helps them sign up, Dietz said. “This will place that sign-up process online and make it easily accessible and transparent. We’ll still have to have some backup processes for individuals that don’t have internet access or other conditions that we need to accommodate, but we expect that the availability of the program will promote use as well as make it easier for other social service organizations within the community to refer households to this service.”
The back end houses a shared bank of questions that could apply across programs and is managed by a city-designated CiviForm program administrator. This person works with agency teams to understand their needs and build the form without having to code it. Changes can be made and questions as needed with no active development required, said Erin Hattersley, Google.org manager.
“CiviForm is meant to be a low-code and point-and-click tool,” Hattersley said.
It started through a project that 14 Google.org fellows did in Seattle between November 2020 and May 2021. The tool was built using open source technologies and is containerized for development and deployment using Docker. Because it is an open source, shared software solution, as users make changes, others benefit from their contributions to the code, she added.
“It reduces the burden on any one civic entity,” Hattersley said.
Governments host the infrastructure for CiviForm, so the data that flows through is hosted and managed by the entity, not Google.
Benefits Dietz expects the city to see include the ability to track data within the systems through unified recordkeeping and increased efficiency by virtue of having forms in one digital place.
Although not all metrics are ironed out yet, Dietz said a major determinant of the pilot’s success will be usage rates. “There will be a mixture of some qualitative engagement with users and then a quantitative look at how many individuals applied [and] were we able to utilize all the resources that we have made available to the public using this tool,” he said. “We do intend to follow up with a number of the users who’ve used the system, particularly ones that have been multiyear beneficiaries of, say, a parks scholarship [to ask,] ‘What was your experience this year vs. last?’”
In Seattle, CiviForm cut the time it takes residents to apply for benefits to three minutes from 30, getting attention from other city, county and state entities. Bloomington is the first redeployment, although Google.org is in discussions to work with additional cities and states and anticipates the first deployment of CiviForm with a state in October.
Several factors make for good CiviForm candidates, Hattersley said. One is leader support. “It’s so important to have that top-down support so that they are able to secure resources -- the staff at the civic entity is able to dedicate the time to work alongside the fellows,” she said.
Others include how easy or hard it is for residents to access services and a willingness to try new technologies. Although the fellows work with the agency to use technologies they’re comfortable with (cloud in Seattle and on-prem architecture in Bloomington), the hope is that the experience will expose them to more options, Hattersley said.
“We can help stretch and build capacity within government to leverage innovative technologies or to try new approaches to scale,” she said.
Currently, CiviForm isn’t mature enough for government agencies to apply without fellows’ research and help, but Hattersley said that is the goal.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.