With Arlene Corbin Lewis, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, and Deirdre Hirschtritt, Senior Qualitative Researcher, at Code for America
At a glance
Code for America is a non-profit group that has developed a suite of digital tools and services to help people apply for benefits in the US. The team sets out to work towards “a government for the people, by the people, that works in the digital age.”
Above all else, the Code for America team believes in showing up with empathy for their clients, which is why they use Intercom’s Conversational Support solution to provide help at every stage of the application process. “We believe that government at all levels can and should work well for all people. Using insights and ideas from real people, we break down barriers to meet community needs and improve government in meaningful ways,” says Arlene Corbin Lewis, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at Code for America.
To do this, the team partners closely with local government to give people better access to public programs. They have developed a broad range of initiatives, including GetCalFresh and MNbenefits, to help people apply for a variety of benefits in the states of California and Minnesota.
Helping to put food on the table
In California, GetCalFresh assists residents with applying to CalFresh, the state’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Through CalFresh, residents get monthly benefits that they can use to buy food for their household. Since 2019, GetCalFresh has helped more than six million people either access or maintain their SNAP benefits.
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the Code for America team saw a weekly average of 3,000 conversations coming through the Intercom Messenger. Over the past 12 months, they’ve had to scale their efforts to support the 9,000 conversations they were receiving every week at the height of the pandemic – a 300% increase. Thanks to Intercom’s Inbox and bots, the team has been able to continue providing highly personal support despite the massive surge in conversation volume, using Resolution Bot to offer instant self-serve support and answer frequently asked questions through English, Spanish, and Cantonese. This lets the team maintain a fast response time for more urgent queries that need immediate attention from someone on the team.
Striking the balance between efficient and personal support
At the same time, the team strives to balance efficient support and personal interaction. For instance, people often reach out to ask for their case number or get an update on their application. The team can quickly look up the information and provide updates through Intercom in a matter of seconds, saving people hours of time and enabling them to move on to the next stage of the process.
They also take the time to say something as simple as “I can see that your case is pending,” just to reassure clients that there is a person on the other side of the conversation ready to support them. “Knowing that there’s someone with you and on your side when you’re facing tough times can have such an impact,” says Arlene.
Fueling change through feedback
As the team discovered during the COVID-19 crisis, confusion around claiming benefits is a huge issue for people. This is driven largely by the fact that in certain states, government benefits are administered on a county-by-county basis, rather than at the state level, which makes finding the relevant resources and documentation a convoluted process.
Intercom enables the Code for America team to analyze client conversations and feed valuable insights back to the California Department of Social Services, which has oversight of CalFresh, so they can help move the needle on improving access to government benefits. “These feedback loops are helping to make more equitable outcomes possible,” explains Arlene. “And by removing barriers like multiple phone calls, visits to the county office, or waiting in long lines to fill out paper applications, we’re meeting people’s needs at a deeper level of dignity and respect.”
Bridging the digital divide
Another initiative that the Code for America team has developed is MNbenefits, which assists Minnesotans with getting access to a number of the state’s public programs. The team has partnered closely with local government in Minnesota to improve the application process for nine different safety net benefits, including food assistance, cash programs, emergency assistance, housing support, and child care assistance.
Deirdre Hirschtritt, a Senior Qualitative Researcher at Code for America who works on the MNbenefits program, explains that the team uses Intercom to offer personal support to their clients as they’re guided through the application process. Before the introduction of MNbenefits, applying to the state’s benefit programs took over an hour. Now, thanks to the initiative, the application process has been reduced to just 12 minutes and the team has helped to process applications for 25,000 people. “Over the past year, our Integrated Benefits team has been working with the state of Minnesota to build a new integrated public benefits application,” Deirdre says. “Now, clients from several counties across the state can apply for multiple programs, all from one mobile-friendly website.”
Offering continued support
Speaking to the impact Intercom has had on the team’s ability to support their clients, Deirdre says, “Intercom enables us to help our clients navigate the application process for benefits, to answer questions they might have, and then offer them support after they’ve completed the application. When people come back to our site, Intercom is their first point of contact to get in touch with us about their case status or how to take the next step in the enrollment process.”
This conversational approach to communicating with their clients is one of the main reasons the Code for America team chose Intercom to power their support. Through conversations, the team is able to learn more about their clients in order to adapt to help people in different situations. As Deirdre explains, “A staff member from a community-based organization recently got in touch with us through Intercom to ask for support for one of her clients. She asked about how to apply for a family in a specific situation – which our application didn’t yet support – and we were able to guide her client through the application process and then work with our product team to create the functionality to support families in similar situations in the future.”
The ability to have conversations through the Intercom Messenger has also created opportunities for the MNbenefits team to connect with local organizations and expand their program to support more people. “As a result of the conversational tone of our communication through chat, the staff member from the community-based organization and I learned more about each other’s work and made a plan to meet over Zoom to continue the conversation about how our team can better support her clients in the future,” Deirdre says.
Keeping clients connected
Similar to the GetCalFresh program, Deirdre explains that the feedback loop Intercom enables between MNbenefits’ clients and their caseworkers is incredibly important to their team. “I think the most meaningful use of Intercom that we’ve had to date is the quick feedback loop it allows between clients who need help getting food on the table and caseworkers who can help process those applications. Just today we got a message from a client who had applied for SNAP months ago and hadn’t heard anything back about his eligibility. I was able to immediately contact his county and within the hour, a staff member had called the client to get him his benefits right then and there.”
Making a difference
The important work that Code for America is doing across all of their programs continues to impact the lives of millions of people, working endlessly to bridge the digital divide between government benefits and assistance programs and the people who need them most.
Speaking to the role Intercom plays in helping the team to continue this work, Deirdre says, “Our work falls into what’s called the social safety net – programs like SNAP and Medicaid are a way that we catch people who are struggling and offer some support. My colleague described Intercom as a sort of ‘safety net’ in itself. In a bureaucratic system where hour-long waits on phone lines are the norm, Intercom is a way for clients to connect with a human in real time.”