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 In many cases, with pressure to accommodate an extraordinary amount of activity — paired with outdated technology — systems broke down or significant backlogs developed as caseworkers navigated legislative changes and unprecedented demand.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 …….