Putting Users First: An Innovative Approach to the Modernization of the Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP)
The Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP) helps over 42,000 low income Nova Scotians with the high cost of heating their homes in the winter. In 2016 Service Nova Scotia used an innovative approach to modernize HARP from a paper-based application to an online system to improve user experience and government processes. The modernization of this program was uniquely user-driven with significant user-testing leading the transition process and continuous user-testing for ongoing improvement.
The Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP) is an $11 Million program that provides rebates to over 42,000 low income Nova Scotians with the high cost of heating their homes each year. Historically, the application for HARP involved Service Nova Scotia (SNS) mailing out paper applications to potential applicants, applicants mailing back completed application forms and SNS staff manually processing the application. Cheques would be mailed to successful applicants. The paper application process can take up to 8 weeks.
In 2015 we knew that many HARP applicants had access to a mobile device and that providing an online option would allow users with a more convenient and efficient way to apply for the program. We were also aware that the HARP program had high administrative costs with $450,000 being spent on clerical services and postage. We believed that moving to an online platform would reduce these mailing and processing fees, leaving more funds available for actual rebates. We also knew that allowing applicants to receive the rebate through a direct deposit option would save money on cheque generation and mailing.
From the beginning, we were driven to use a collaborative, user-centric innovation model to modernize HARP. Internally, we brought together everyone who was involved in the delivery of the paper service (Program staff, paper processing staff, call center staff, operations team, web team, communications team, IT staff, service delivery team) to map out everything that was organizationally known about HARP. We also interviewed past applicants and community organizations that support applicants. These interviews taught us about real user experiences with the paper application process while allowing us to better understand applicants’ concerns regarding technology and digital platforms.
As a result of these conversations, four business units within Service Nova Scotia (SNS) combined forces with Information Technology (IT) partners to implement two innovative modernization projects concurrently. One project was moving HARP from a paper-based application to an online system with an eligibility checker at the front end as well as an application status checker and the other was creating a direct deposit option. The status checkers were a direct result of user research informing us about anxiety around if the application had been received and if the application would be successful. Once these projects were completed program staff ensured that members of the public were informed and educated about the online solution.
The implementation of both projects resulted in significant program improvements and cost savings. By focusing on and understanding user needs, the HARP innovation process ensured that we were creating the best possible system for users. When the program was paper-based only one application was processed in the first week the program was open, in 2016-17 when the online platform was launched 625 applications were approved in the first week. It is worth noting that online applicants receive their rebates by direct deposit within three weeks – less than half the time than the paper-based system takes. The online system is also safer and more secure, avoiding potential issues involving mail fraud. Internally, the digital uptake produced savings of approximately $65K and the direct deposit saved $30K in cheque transaction costs. These results demonstrate that when modernization is done collaboratively and in a way that puts users first, it can have significant benefits for both the citizens we serve and government.
In addition to significantly improving the HARP application process for users and government, we utilized this as an opportunity to collect and track data for the purpose of continuous improvement. We created a dashboard that allows us to monitor data on a weekly basis while the program is running. We also used the service measurement data from 2016-17 to improve the service in 2017-18. This has resulted in a continued increase in digital applications this year. Over 20% of people have applied online and received their rebate up to 4 weeks faster.
The ongoing success of this project reaches far beyond the HARP program. It is currently being used as a model to modernize the Property Tax Rebate for Seniors (PTRS). It has created a cultural shift throughout SNS and the rest of the Nova Scotia government. A very important example of this is that this innovative approach to modernizing HARP has helped us to eliminate assumptions about vulnerable populations. It has confirmed that we need to speak to the users directly to understand their needs. This modernization has also demonstrated to others in the public service the potential that can be realized when you use new approaches, something that government can be wary of. It proves that new approaches can build trust with users and build better services while demonstrating impact through measurement and continuous improvement.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The HARP modernization project is innovative and was an organizational first for the Government of Nova Scotia (GNS) in a number of ways including: the user first approach; collaborative efforts between business units involved; the online platform; and the way that we use service management data (presented in a dashboard) to track and continuously improve the program for users and government.
This project rallied staff to take a multidisciplinary approach, challenge their own assumptions and discover and address the actual needs and challenges of applicants. Discussions with users led us to develop the Eligibility and Status Checkers as well as Direct Deposit. The way that applicants can upload a picture of their heating bill from their mobile device as a supporting document and that they finalize their application by e-signature is also new to our organization. These changes were user-driven and ultimately resulted in a program that is much better for both users and government.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Our status in terms of our objective to move HARP from a paper-based application to an online platform and creating a direct deposit option for users is Diffusing Lessons. With that being said, we conduct ongoing user testing and utilize service measurement data to inform continuous improvement of the program. This means that we have various aspects of user- and data- informed improvements at various stages at this point. An example of this would be a Behavioural Insights experiment that we are currently running on HARP to increase the uptake of the online system. This experiment involves groups of previous paper-based applicants to test 3 letters aimed at nudging them to apply on-line. The letter that generates the most on-line applications will be sent to all paper-based applicants next program year. We are also using this project as a model to modernize another program, PTRS, which is currently in the Developing Proposals stage.
Collaborations & Partnerships
1. Engaged HARP applicants throughout to understand their experience with the paper-based system and their concerns about digital platforms.
2. Worked with Community Organizations that serve the HARP applicant demographic to learn how they help connect people with programs like HARP.
3. Worked with Canada Revenue Agency to develop the Direct Deposit function.
4. Involved 4 different SNS teams working collaboratively to build an efficient system that meets user needs.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Low income Nova Scotians and the community organizations that support them gained a user-centric online platform that includes Eligibility and Status Checkers as well as a Direct Deposit feature. HARP applicants are receiving their applications in a faster and more secure way.
Benefits to government include significantly reduced administration costs around the delivery of this program and data that we are utilizing for continuous improvement efforts through the HARP Dashboard.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Through the online platform, the processing of applications and the delivery of rebates is faster. In fact, online applicants receive their rebates up to 4 weeks faster than paper-based. The online platform is also more secure, removing the increasing risks of mail fraud. The efficiencies for users have been mirrored internally. Increased online applications mean less data entry and mailings. The direct deposit feature (with 83% user uptake) also resulted in savings.
All of the HARP program data is tracked through an Executive Dashboard (please see attached) that includes the number of applications that have been processed, how users are getting to our application system (website, Facebook ads, Google searches) and the kinds of devices that they are using to apply (computer, phone, tablet). We utilize this data to make continuous program improvements.
As we convert more users to apply online we expect to see all of the benefits listed above increase in the future.
Challenges and Failures
Initially, the biggest challenges faced were around learning how to work together with a new approach. Everyone also had to develop a new, common understanding of program success. We faced some significant issues around privacy that we worked with the Privacy Commissioner to overcome.
Our current challenge is around online uptake. The majority of HARP applicants continue to use the paper-based system for a few reasons including the fact that 50% of HARP applicants are seniors and that we designed the paper-based form so well that applicants prefer to use it.
We are currently running an experiment using Behavioural Insights to drive applicants to use the online system. This experiment involves groups of previous paper-based applicants to test 3 letters aimed at nudging them to apply on-line. The letter that generates the most online applications will be sent to all paper-based applicants next program year.
We also provide digital assistance to users.
Conditions for Success
In order to succeed an integral factor was acquiring support from senior management on both the idea of moving to an online system and utilizing a human-centered approach to do so. This support helped us to identify and change the necessary policies and processes related to the modernization as well as to attain budget approvals. The concept of using design thinking to build an online tool to ensure that it would meet the needs of users was revolutionary to the Government of Nova Scotia. This innovation would not have been possible without the full support of senior leadership.
It is also worth mentioning that for this project to be successful we had to debunk the stereotype that seniors do not want to apply for things online. By speaking with seniors who are HARP applicants we were able to learn what their actual needs and challenges are, allowing us to design an online platform that meets the needs of this demographic which makes up over 50% of our applicant base.
The idea of moving from a paper-based system to an online system is being replicated throughout our organization. We are in the initial stages of using the innovative HARP model to modernize another program, the Property Tax Rebate for Seniors. Our Registries unit is also using the HARP model to build an online tool based on user needs.
The Status Checker and Eligibility Checker are patterns that can be applied to other application services. Lottery Permits recently adopted the Eligibility Checker.
Externally, the process that we went through to attain the electronic signature on our online platform is being sought after nationally. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) uses us as a model for best messaging and processes to use for Direct Deposit. We are a resource for other provinces who are interested in increasing their digital uptake because ours is at 83%.
One of the lessons that we are most excited about is the fact that our user-driven approach succeeded and led to the creation of an innovative platform that works better for users and government.
We also learned to fail early and fail often as long as you are incorporating users into your experiments to better their experiences and meet their needs. This has created a cultural shift across the Nova Scotia Government which is now being described by the head of the Public Services as a fail-safe environment.
Stakeholder consultations are extremely important. Often internal stakeholders are overlooked but they were part of the key to the success of this innovative modernization. Having all employees that had worked on the paper-based version of HARP in one room to gather all known institutional knowledge helped to frame the path for this project. Processing and call center employees were involved in prioritizing and ideating for the Eligibility and Status Checkers. They also contributed to the development of the service dashboards which keeps all of the parts of the service delivery visible across our organization.
Knowing our audience and using plain language in our communications has been crucial throughout user testing and promotion of the online system.
Using data analytics has been important to the success of this project because it provides us with information around online input and where we should be advertising.
SNS defines innovation as “Finding better ways of doing valued things.” The innovative approach that was taken to modernize HARP is allowing low income Nova Scotians to apply easily and receive their rebates faster. The conversations we had with users led us to create online status and eligibility checkers, create an MOU with CRA to enable the Direct Deposit feature, and encouraged us to pursue having an electronic signature for confirmation. These features enhanced the user experience and created significant cost savings for the government. The ways we are utilizing user testing and data from the dashboard to continuously improve the program and the ways that we promote it are revolutionary to the Government of Nova Scotia. We are excited to see the ripple effect this innovative approach is having across our organization and others. We are looking forward to seeing how HARP continues to evolve as other programs model their modernization approaches after this one.