Benefits site could set standard

It's no easy task to determine an individual's eligibility among more than 50 federal benefits programs spread across 10 agencies, but the Labor Department has found a way to do it.

GovBenefits, launched April 29 by Labor and the Office of Management and Budget, is intended to provide a single portal for citizens to access information on, and eventually apply online for, government benefits programs, including flood insurance, student financial aid and Medicare.

GovBenefits will serve as a model for the Bush administration's other 23 e-government initiatives by working across agencies and focusing on providing an initial operating capability instead of waiting for full functionality, said Mark Forman, associate director for information technology and e-government at OMB.

"It's really setting the benchmark of what we need to do in e-government as we work across traditional lines," he said.

Labor developed an automated tool that enables program officers to easily translate "governmentese" into yes-or-no questions that citizens can understand. The questions are the primary tool the GovBenefits Web site uses to help people sort through the various benefits programs.

Citizens first choose from a list of potential beneficiary categories, such as disaster victim, senior citizen or veteran. Those choices determine the yes-or-no questions that will be asked to match the citizen to the programs for which they might be eligible. The description of those programs and contact information are then displayed and can be printed in a report.

Each benefit program uses its own language and processes, and to bring them all together under a single, simple look and feel required that Labor — the managing partner of the GovBenefits initiative — do a lot of prep work, said Ed Hugler, deputy assistant secretary for administration and management at Labor.

Beyond establishing relationships with each of the program offices in the partner agencies, the initiative team created an automated tool so the program officers themselves could develop the wording for the questions, said Hugler, the day-to-day leader of the team.

The Labor team then reviewed the questions, made any modifications deemed necessary and gave the program offices one last look to ensure that there were no mistakes before final approval, he said.

"That, really, is the hidden magic to this program," he said.

All of this is important to give citizens a single look and make sure the questions are easy to understand. But it is also an important part of meeting the initiative's goal of 80 percent or better confidence that the benefits programs citizens are referred to by the site will be ones they are actually eligible for, Hugler said.

The first version of the site brings together information on 55 benefits programs from 10 federal agencies that give approximately $1 trillion in benefits payments. But during the next year and a half, it will expand to more than 300 programs from federal, state and local agencies, said D. Cameron Findlay, deputy secretary of Labor.

Several other e-government initiatives should be released in their initial version in late May, with another possibly released in early June, Forman said.


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