We want low-income residents to utilize city benefit programs

Affordability Portal for Seattle Mayor's Office

Seattle is in an unprecedented period of change and growth. Our economy is prospering and attracting new people from across the country for jobs and opportunity, but for many, this is a difficult time. The City needs to address the crisis of affordability in order to be a city that represents opportunity for all.

In November 2017, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed Executive Order 2017-12 and directed City departments to address the increased cost of living in Seattle through, among other actions, the creation of a common affordability portal and exploration of opportunities to streamline and coordinate activities across benefit programs.

Our team co-created a plan with residents, City employees, and community-based organization staff and put forth recommendations in response to the Executive Order and to this key question:

How might the City of Seattle better connect low-income households and residents to programs that would lower their cost of living?

Research

The primary question our research aimed to answer was: How might the City of Seattle better connect low-income households and residents to programs that would lower their cost of living? To explore this question, the team conducted primary research through intercepts described below to understand the perspectives of residents, City staff that work on relevant programs and services, and community-based organizations.

The objectives of this project were to

  1. Increase understanding of City benefit programs and the experience of staff administering them and residents accessing them.
  2. Identify new opportunities to increase access and utilization of City benefit programs.
  3. Co-create and envision possible solutions using human-centered design, a collaborative problem-solving process.

We created a research plan, carried out research activities, facilitated workshops to generate ideas, and developed recommendations using design thinking methodologies which are anchored on insights about the experiences of those affected by services. Throughout the process, we engaged with City staff from 14 departments, service providers, and residents of Seattle to understand the issue and co-create solutions.

Quote from resident Photo from contextual research Photo of line at customer service center

We used The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Washington State 2017 to analyze how much five different household types could receive from City benefits. The chart represents two household types.

Quantitative analysis of affordability scenarios

Engagement

Contextual research with front-line staff Innovation lab with city employees, service providers, and residents Workshop participants presenting ideas Idea dashboards

“Many, many thanks to you and the team for doing such an incredible job with this. I know from our little group here at City Light we think this work is a game changer and well help and support you in whatever way we can.”

– Kelly Enright, Customer Care Director, Seattle City Light

Findings

The project team analyzed interview notes, verbatim transcripts, and materials collected to identify key themes to inform the design of our recommended initiatives:

  1. Meet people where they are and bring them the information they need: This theme highlights the importance of understanding how people receive and access information and how we currently conduct outreach.
  2. Many people prefer to access government services through human intermediaries: The second theme examines the role of people in accessing benefits, even when technology exists to expand access.
  3. People need ease of access, clarity, and security to successfully navigate services: This theme explores how people feel about government services and their desire for government to provide safe and reliable services.
  4. A digital solution, if executed well, benefits people who already access web services: This final theme describes considerations to keep in mind with the implementation of a digital solution.

Research findings grouped by theme

Example Theme

People need ease of access, clarity, and security to successfully navigate services.
Residents need ways to easily access information, understand it, and know that it is safe to participate. People generally view government agencies and departments as one entity – negative experiences with any may deter participation in others. Overall, there is a perception from residents and recognition from staff and service providers that there is a need to remove complexity, build trust, and increase access.

“We used WIC during pregnancy. I stopped because it was complicated to use. The office we had to visit was far. I always had problems at the store. Cashiers were not aware and it took forever. It was a hassle. Every time they would sigh. I got tired of it. It was nice, but wasn’t so much support or beneficial enough that I was like, I don’t want to deal. It was $120 per month, which is a lot.”
– Resident, Age 35 [Reported annual income is $43,200 for a family of 3]
“People are nervous when they are undocumented without a social security number. There are trust concerns. Families with mixed immigration status want to fly under the radar. Having any government attention on them is stressful. They won’t ask questions. Many people don’t know that their children born in the US are eligible for benefits. There’s always more paper and they wonder, is it safe to apply?”
– Service Provider [Community-based organization in South Seattle]
“I’m on social security and a pension, it’s a huge bonus to me not to have that one more bill. I’m embarrassed that I don’t pay anything. It almost seems like it’s cheating or charity or welfare. I’m grateful for it, but it’s hard for me to admit that I can really use it. It’s hard to ask for money. It’s hard to need money. I don’t want to admit that my income is really that low.”
– Resident, Age 68 [Reported annual income is $20,200 for a family of 1]

Design Solution

Our research resulted in the proposed implementation of three workstreams and their associated initiatives to achieve Mayor Durkan’s vision and address the challenges that residents face in accessing City supports. These recommendations were informed directly by Seattle residents and the people that serve them.

  • Affordability Portal: Develop a website that connects residents with City benefits by centralizing City benefits to make them easy to find and by streamlining the application process to make it easier to receive assistance.
  • Outreach & Marketing: Provide targeted information to residents and community groups about a portal and the benefit programs themselves through intentional outreach and marketing.
  • Program Performance: Streamline access to individual benefit programs and across the full portfolio of programs through process improvements.

I led the design of our digital solution and created prototypes to engage city staff, service providers, and residents. Ultimately we tried four different concepts.

I evaluated the value of each design concept and rapidly iterated on them before generating recommendations. To conduct user testing, I had in-person and remote sessions using paper and digital tools.

Testing

Outcomes

“Amie demonstrates that she believes in authentic community engagement by listening and working with all the stakeholders, including service recipients and service providers with an in-person and structured conversation. I participated in a half-day design workshop that Amie facilitated. We reviewed research and generated ideas together with 30 other people, including residents. As a facilitator, Amie was enthusiastic and passionate in collecting inputs from all stakeholders. I felt inspired by the questions she asked and information I learned during the process. I wish this process could happen sooner so that public resources could be more accessible for people, especially for immigrants, refugees and people of color whose primary language is not English.

After the workshop, Amie created five prototypes which she shared with me and my colleagues at the Community Technology Advisory Board to get feedback. I really appreciated the amazing work done by Amie and her team. I can’t wait to introduce the tool to the community that I serve once it become available. I have strong commitment to digital literacy and equity and sees technology as an important key to reach self-sufficiency for immigrant communities. It is extremely crucial to have the voices of service providers and their clients included in the design process.”

– Karia Wong, Family Center Coordinator, Chinese Information Service Center (CISC)
Affordability prototype on mobile screens Affordablity prototype in web browser