Alberta Child Care Subsidy Modernization

Government of Alberta

Service Design and Agile development that modernizes access to critical citizen services.

The Government of Alberta’s Digital Innovation Office (DIO) supports and coordinates innovation across government. The DIO works with policy teams, internal IT staff, and digital vendors to help ministries launch modern, citizen-centred digital services. 

In 2019, the DIO began working with the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Children’s Services to improve and expand their digital delivery of the child care subsidy and child care staff certification applications.  Child Care Subsidy is a service that exists to offset the cost of child care depending on factors like family size, type of care, and household income. Every year, more than 25,000 people apply for child care subsidies in Alberta. The existing application process was not completely digital and was time consuming and frustrating for end users. 

The exemplar Service Design project was the Online Child Care Subsidy Application. Their second initiative was the modernization of the Child Care Staff Certification Application. This is a mandatory credential for Albertans working in licensed daycare, out-of-school care, or preschool programs. 

The DIO partnered with OXD to use modern methodologies like Service Design and Agile throughout the project. By using a human-centred approach, we were able to improve processes for both the internal team and the families using the service.

The Government of Alberta’s Digital Innovation Office partnered with OXD in the modernization of their Early Childhood Development Systems to improve citizen services. 

The existing Online Child Care Subsidy Application process was hard to access and difficult to use. 

It was inaccessible on modern browsers. 

The Government of Alberta’s existing digital subsidy application was only accessible on decade-old browser versions and by printable PDF. To apply for child care subsidy, people were tapping into their personal networks in search of old, compatible browsers. Those that contacted the Alberta Supports call centre were directed to public spaces like libraries in hopes that they might be able to access an old browser. For those who couldn’t apply online due to accessibility issues, they had to print and fill out a PDF form, and then drop it off at an Alberta Services Centre for filing.

Screenshot of the application form prior to the modernization of subsidy application design.
Before
Image of new application design on laptop and iPhone after modernization by OXD
After

Applicants often needed additional support.

The existing systems contained complexity of the policies that determined their eligibility for subsidy or certification. The forms used hard-to-decipher legal jargon and offered little supporting information or context. While they legally and accurately reflected the policy, they weren’t understandable. For example, mandatory fields were not marked, error messages did not provide a lot of context on how they could be resolved. For those who managed to successfully file online, they received a tentative approval confirmation email but then had no way of tracking the status of their application or understanding what came next. Altogether, these factors resulted in an increased volume of calls to Alberta Supports staff who would then try to walk people through the application process. 

Their legacy back-end was here to stay.

Updating the back-end used by Child Care staff (assessors) who process and approve subsidy applications was not in the scope of this project. We needed to make the government service easier to use for citizens without complicating the assessment process further. The existing Child Care Information System would play a huge role in determining the requirements and constraints for modernizing the application process. It would require more than an API connection to ensure the applicant data pulled into the back-end was complete, correct, and uncompromised when moving from the legacy system of record to a new digital application and back again. 

How to use a Service Design and Agile approach in the modernization of government

Start with discovery.

One of the DIO’s goals is to help governments launch rapidly and regularly. By using a Service Design and Agile approach we could support this goal while helping teams embrace modernization. In the discovery phase, we identified opportunities for improving service delivery in child care. We evaluated the existing systems and talked to users to understand the challenges they encountered. We also talked to stakeholders within government to understand how to reduce friction for the people receiving and assessing applications. With both groups we focused on uncovering the best possible outcomes—this left us with opportunities to present to the client for further exploration, requirements writing, and prototyping. 

Facilitate remote collaboration.

OXD needed tools that allowed for transparency across the different teams to strengthen the ministry’s understanding of how Agile projects come to life. While the OXD teams worked out of Vancouver and Victoria, Children’s Services staff were located in Edmonton and Calgary. Working across provinces meant that project collaboration tools were ideal for this project. We wanted to create an environment where everybody could contribute and stay up to date. Technical requirements, copy, wireframes, source data for user acceptance testing, and bug reports all lived in a collaboration software tool. This served as a single source of truth for designers, developers, policy makers, and the rest of the project team. It wasn’t realistic, or even necessary, for everybody to be in the same room—making the integration of our teams easier, while demystifying the development process for the policy teams.

workshop for modernization of Alberta government's child care subsidy application
Workshop for modernization of Alberta government’s child care subsidy application

Produce requirements.

Our UX team worked a sprint or two ahead of the development team to produce the requirements that they needed to build. By organizing both projects into two-week sprints, we were able to allow for changing requirements, agree on a minimum viable product, and prioritize the development of features that brought the greatest value to citizens for the launch of Beta. 

Build prototypes for usability success.

In the Alpha phase for both the Online Child Care Subsidy and Child Care Staff Certification applications, we built prototypes of our proposed applications. Testing these prototypes with real users helped us evaluate the usefulness of the flow, new features, and the updated language. We were also able to gain insight into where people struggled. For example, our usability testing in Beta revealed that while the application was written in plain language, there were several technical terms that needed to be defined. 

We made the policy understandable to reduce error rates and guide applicants through the process. We explained legal and financial terms using inline tool tips and definitions to guide applicants. To reduce error in data entry further, we prompted applicants with information to help them troubleshoot submissions that did not meet the field requirements. Now when a response was labelled as incorrect, the new form offered an explanation as to why.

Engage a diversity of Albertans.

We conducted in-person interviews and used remote user testing for our prototypes to gather research from people across the Province. By leveraging remote technology, we were able to include Albertans in rural and hard-to-access areas in our design research. This helped us get feedback on the existing service and the usefulness of our prototype concepts. Including a wider audience to accurately reflect those using the service uncovered valuable insights for improvements.

Expand the design system.

Our Creative team focused on implementing the Government of Alberta’s updated design system. We moved away from the two column format in favour of a linear design with a narrower pixel width. This meant the application could be scaled down for smaller screen sizes, without compromising the design or legibility. We also introduced tabs and a dropdown, which made it more mobile responsive. We introduced a progress bar to show applicants what they’ve completed and what steps remained. This progress bar also allows users to navigate between steps they have already completed, making it easy to fix mistakes as they go. Lastly, to make the review and results pages easier to digest we used icons and colours, like green for success or yellow for warnings, to show applicants where they had been successful or needed to take further action.

Screenshot of new form showing modernization improvements to the application design with a yellow error message.

Minimize disruption.

We used API calls to push relevant data from the new application into the legacy Child Care Information System. Staff were able to continue to use existing back-end software to process payments and perform other key reporting tasks, minimizing disruptions to well-established back-office workflows.

What modernization and citizen-centred Service Design does for citizens and governments

Makes applications easy to complete online.

The new applications are responsive and easy to use. We also made it possible for applicants to save their applications and return to them at a later date, see the progress of their application, and offered pre-screening to help applicants assess their eligibility before even starting the process. 

Works well with legacy systems. 

We developed the application using a Django framework and Python and integrated it with the Child Care Information System backend system via API, as well as with MyAlberta Digital ID (MADI), the Government of Alberta’s single, online identity verification system. 

Image of Subsidy application home page on laptop after modernization over a blue background

Provides instant, conditional approval for child care subsidy.

With the new Online Child Care Subsidy Application, people applying for child care subsidy receive an instant two-month approval when they submit. This eliminates the need for people to call Services Alberta for clarification as they now know their child care is temporarily approved while they wait for final approval from an assessor. The improvements to the review and confirmation pages address many of the outstanding questions held by past applicants, including providing what the next steps are. 

Screenshot of the modernization of the application design with a green approval message to the form.

Decreases processing time.

Average processing time for applications has dropped from five days with the previous system to less than three days. Making the processes easier to understand and navigate, while also prompting users to correct errors as they complete their applications reduced the number of errors in the data submitted. This benefits both the applicants and the assessors reviewing applications. 

The Children’s Services team has experienced Agile firsthand, and with success. 

Using Service Design and Agile methods has helped the entire Alberta team learn a lot about how to design and build software in a modern way. As we continue to develop new digital services with Alberta’s Children Services, we’re helping government learn and develop new capabilities. Together, we’ve set a precedent for working in an Agile manner to help modernize crucial citizen services for Albertans.

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