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.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

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.

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  • Developing Proposals - turning ideas into business cases that can be assessed and acted on
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

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