Benefits without Barriers
Improving Citizen Access to Social Services through Technology
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
For all governments, successful delivery of social services is as equally dependent on
accessibility as it is on the quality of service offerings. When citizens or community partners are
unable to access the social service application process due to their remote location, lack of
transportation, busy work schedule or other hassles or embarrassment people contend with at a
“welfare” office, an unfortunate and unnecessary disconnect occurs. This prevents individuals
from receiving needed assistance, results in lower participation rates, and undermines the
mission of government agencies committed to serving disadvantaged members of society. The
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken significant steps to overcome this disconnect by
combining forethought with a technology-based solution: COMPASS, which is an acronym for
COMmonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services.
COMPASS was first released in August 2001 as an online application for Medicaid for Pregnant
Women and Children and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). After 8 additional
major releases, COMPASS has expanded to include applications for Adult Medicaid, Cash
Assistance, Food Stamp benefits, Medicaid for Workers with Disabilities (MAWD), Family Works,
adultBasic, Long Term Care, Home and Community Based Services, and the Low Income Home
Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It also provides a screening tool for people to determine if
they are potentially eligible for services before they decide to apply. All areas of the application
have been made available in Spanish and are fully ADA compliant to increase usability by all
citizen groups. Only questions relevant to the selected services are presented to the user in the
application and the screening processes. Data from submitted applications is transferred real-
time to up to four different back-end systems in Pennsylvania, depending on the programs for
which the user applied allowing for immediate access and processing by social services staff.
Over time, COMPASS expanded the communication between the Commonwealth and its social
service recipients by providing the ability to submit a renewal application online. Authenticated
users are presented with data already existing in the eligibility system for their confirmation, rather
than requiring users to provide this information again. It also allows existing recipients to create a
personal account, allowing them to access their current demographic and benefit information.
COMPASS also provides Pennsylvania’s Community Partners with special access to submit
applications on clients’ behalf in the Community Partner View (CPV) module. CPV users are
given the option of using the traditional online application or a more streamlined version of the
application called Power User.
COMPASS has significantly improved the way Pennsylvania interacts with its citizens.
Application processing is faster, more efficient and less error-prone with the advent of electronic
access to services. The number of inquiries and visits to County Assistance Offices (CAO) has
been greatly reduced now that social service information is available online. In addition, the
screening process within COMPASS reduces the number of applications that would eventually be
denied services by quickly alerting citizens to whether they meet key eligibility criteria.
Multiple benefits have been realized by service recipients, taxpayers, and community partners
through COMPASS. It creates a single-point of access to services that are offered by various
Pennsylvania agencies. Since applications can be submitted online at any time of the day,
COMPASS eliminates the need for applicants to physically visit a CAO and allows users to apply
after work or on weekends or whenever it is most convenient for them. Because the application
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dynamically asks questions based on programs for which the user applied and the user’s unique
situation, considerable time and energy is saved.
Must not exceed 3,000 words or 5 pages (whichever happens first)
Description of project, including length of time in operation
Self-service in social service delivery is a phenomenon driven by both the government need for
less expensive delivery channels with larger mass reach and the citizen cry for on-demand
service from their government resembling what they receive from online retailers. States asked,
“Why can’t more of the burden for services be placed on the citizen?” Many states have come to
learn that indeed it can, and the citizens like the new service options. The Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania has led the nation in self-service offerings with a great degree of success
encouraging other states to follow their lead. As an added incentive, self-service reduces worker
time and cost in fulfilling similar documentation and even application requests in the office,
leaving them more time to provide services to the citizens.
COMPASS, the COMmonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services, is an e-government
initiative aimed at meeting this challenge by streamlining access to social and human services for
the Commonwealth’s clients and stakeholders. It is a cross-program office, cross-department,
single access point for a wide variety of offerings such as healthcare coverage including
Medicaid, CHIP and adultBasic, food stamps, cash assistance, WIC, School lunch and breakfast,
child care, fuel assistance and home and community based services. Development of the
COMPASS application began in September of 2000. Since then, nine major releases of software
have been implemented, each one containing new functionality geared towards improving
communication between the Commonwealth and its citizens.
The first version of COMPASS was released in August 2001. It provided a means for citizens
and business partners to submit online applications for Medicaid for Pregnant Women and
Children and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Over the course of the following two years (November 2001 – November 2003), Releases 2
through 6 evolved COMPASS into much more. First, all functionality was made available in
Spanish, and each public-facing enhancement added since has also been made fully available in
Spanish. The application for social services expanded to include many more social service
programs, including Adult Medicaid, Cash Assistance, Food Stamp benefits, Medicaid for
Workers with Disabilities (MAWD), Family Works, adultBasic, Long Term Care, Home and
Community Based Services, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
To submit an application, users navigate through a series of screens that are tailored to the
programs for which they have chosen to apply. Only the data relevant to their selected programs
is captured, including household demographics, income, expenses, insurance, and resources. In
addition, detailed questions are scheduled dynamically during the application based on the
citizen’s answers to more general questions. This system of intelligent questioning greatly
streamlines the application process by ensuring that only relevant information is captured.
Also incorporated into Release 3 of COMPASS, was the addition of a screening questionnaire.
This module allows users to enter high-level information about the individuals in their household
to determine potential eligibility for the services they selected. In addition, the tool allows the
citizen to screen for all available programs. This is especially beneficial when a person does know
Government Technology, COMPASS Finds the Way. Online. Available:
http://www.govtech.net/magazine/story.php?id=48264. Accessed: June 15, 2004.
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everything for which he or she may be eligible. Upon completion of the questionnaire, results are
displayed and the user is presented with the option to immediately apply for services. All
information entered during the screening process is transferred into the application to save the
user from retyping any information.
By the end of Release 6, data from submitted applications was being transferred simultaneously
to four back-end systems that are used by different agencies within the Department of Public
Welfare, as well as the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. Each system only receives data if a
program it serves was applied for, and only receives the subset of application data necessary for
processing that particular benefit. The routing logic employed by COMPASS allows the relevant
agencies for an application to all begin processing the request at the same time from the same
data set. This is a tremendous help in reducing the amount of time a citizen must wait before
As mentioned above, COMPASS interfaces with four of Pennsylvania’s social service eligibility
systems. In addition to transferring application data to these systems, the interface is enhanced
to include real-time provider validation, real-time determination of applicants’ Medicaid status, and
real-time application status checks. The status checks allow a citizen to view the progress of their
application with agency it was routed to. This provides an applicant with a tangible indication that
action is underway to serve him or her.
The COMPASS application focuses on improving communication and interaction with community
partners. Community Partner View (CPV) is a module of COMPASS that allows a select group of
community partners to submit applications, view applications they have suspended or completed,
and view applications other individuals in their organization have suspended or completed. CPV
users have access to the application and screening questionnaire as described above and are
the only users who have the ability to use the Power User version of COMPASS. Power User
was implemented to quicken the data entry process for caseworkers who are familiar with the
application and submit multiple applications daily. It compressed the number of data entry
screens from approximately 100 short, simple screens to 12 more complex screens.
CPV is only accessible through secure user authentication mandating the entry of a user name
and password. These credentials are supplied to community partners by the Department of
Public Welfare (DPW). Since CPV users are verified by DPW in the authentication process, the
COMPASS application allows these community partners to complete applications with an e-
The most recent COMPASS enhancements, implemented in Releases 7 through 9 (May 2004 –
January 2005), have been focused on expanding COMPASS into a single-point-of-access for
Pennsylvania citizens who already interact with DPW. Functionality was added to allow social
service recipients to submit renewal applications online, regardless of whether their initial
application was electronically completed. Users who opt to submit such applications online are
prompted for identifying information. Upon successful entry of this information, demographic
information from Pennsylvania’s Client Information System (CIS) is retrieved and displayed to the
user for review and confirmation. The user then completes the renewal application, which is
similar to a new application. All renewals can be ‘e-signed’ by the client, further reducing
Additionally, My COMPASS Account was recently released to broaden the scope of
communication between the Commonwealth and its citizens. It allows current DPW program
recipients to access a summary of their case demographics and their benefit details. Recipients
are able to self-register and create a user name and password to access their benefits summary.
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This access to information helps to alleviate the volume of case inquiries that workers receive,
allowing them to focus more on case management.
Significance to the improvement of the operation of government
COMPASS has had a significant impact on and has provided numerous benefits for application
processing. On the clerical and administrative front, an online application decreases common
processing errors, since problems such as illegible handwriting and incomplete information are
eliminated. COMPASS incorporates built-in validations, drop down menus, and mandatory fields
that do not permit individuals to proceed with the application until required information is
captured, thus reducing the number of incomplete forms submitted to program offices. All of
these features allow clerical workers to spend less time dealing with faulty applications and more
time serving the public.
In addition, the immediate and dynamic routing of applications greatly reduces bureaucratic
bottlenecks. Delays due to lost or misplaced applications are eliminated. As a result, applications
filed through COMPASS are able to be processed, and benefits can be delivered to the client,
much faster than the traditional paper process.
My COMPASS Account allows workers, clients, and community partners to view a benefit
snapshot online, thus reducing time spent on inquiries. However, this tool also displays the
client’s caseworker and CAO contact information, so that clients and community partners can
easily reach out to the appropriate government workers for any additional questions or concerns.
A citizen is also able to spot errors in his information, such as his address needing to be updated
following a move.
COMPASS is integrated with Pennsylvania’s Master Client Index (MCI) System. This has
improved the process workers must use to determine if an applicant is already known to CIS, i.e.
has already received or is currently receiving benefits in Pennsylvania. Based on some
demographic information supplied by the applicant, data is sent to MCI and compared against
existing data to determine whether he/she already exists in the system. This is beneficial not only
because it saves the worker data-entry time, but it also saves time in performing the inquiry in
MCI manually. Once a citizen is entered into the MCI, her information present in disparate
systems can be easily combined.
Benefits realized by service recipients, taxpayers, agency, or state
COMPASS assists users in overcoming traditional barriers to access services by:
Creating a single-point of access to services administered through multiple agencies
Reducing CAO visits and case inquiries
Allowing access to services outside the normal business hours
Providing a dynamic application based on the applied for programs and the user’s
Quickening the application, renewal, and inquiry process
The citizens of PA no longer need to understand the complexities of government policy and
organization in order to interact with and receive benefits from government agencies. For every
applicant, the process of submitting an application is clean and friendly. The bureaucracy behind
delivering the services they require is transparent. Clients who access COMPASS to get
information about one health and human services program are presented with clear information
about a host of other programs that they may be eligible for. Also, the self-screening
questionnaire gives clients an idea up-front of the programs that they are likely to be eligible for.
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The best example of how COMPASS breaks down this barrier may be the routing of applications
for healthcare programs. Healthcare is administered by two separate government departments,
each with their own information system and eligibility rules. A citizen may have heard about the
federally-funded Medicaid program, and therefore enters an application in COMPASS to apply for
healthcare. However, this individual or family may not meet the eligibility criteria, but does qualify
for CHIP, a healthcare program offered through a different governmental department. If the
individual had applied in person at a County Assistance Office, the worker would find the
individual ineligible, and send them off to a separate office. In COMPASS, however, the
application is automatically routed the appropriate office, based on the data entered by the client.
The delays of dealing with different offices are eliminated.
Another advantage of COMPASS is reducing the need to physically visit a local assistance office
during business hours, which is a barrier for many working or disabled citizens. Users can apply
for services and check application status any time of day, and out-of-state family members
applying of behalf of loved ones (e.g. Long Term Care) can apply from afar. Citizens are able to
clearly see how government is removing the obstacles to receive benefits needed to improve
quality of life.
During the last full year of operation, the data has consistently reported that 45-55% of all
applications are completed outside of the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. This statistic is
significant because the residents of Pennsylvania are taking advantage of not being tied to the
business hours of the County Assistance Offices (CAO). COMPASS has expanded the reach of
government through technology and innovation so that COMPASS users are free to interact with
the government at their convenience as they try to deal with their everyday struggles. This is
especially beneficial for individuals with disabilities and those who apply on behalf of other family
A significant benefit to the client is COMPASS’ dynamic nature which ensures the client is only
asked questions pertinent to the programs selected in the application. Additionally, if the client is
applying for several health and human services, questions are never repeated – asking the
questions once sends the answer to multiple agencies. With COMPASS the client does not need
to be familiar with governmental departments, regulations, eligibility requirements, or office
locations. The client only sees a simple, interactive questionnaire that allows them to navigate
through a system that could have been viewed as confusing and oppressive.
With the addition of some of the more recent enhancements, clients and community partners
realize a quicker application process and more efficient means of communicating with the
Commonwealth. My COMPASS Account assists in handling client inquiries 24 hours a day,
which were previously only answered by calling a CAO during business hours. E-signatures
eliminate the need for clients to sign and mail signature pages to the CAO. Online renewals
eliminate the need for clients to re-supply information that DPW already has in its system, since
known demographic data is retrieved directly from CIS and displayed to the user.
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Return on investment, short-term/long-term payback (include summary calculations).
Project must exhibit measurable operational benefit.
County Assistance Offices save money due to COMPASS’ error reduction, since clerical workers
do not have to type the information submitted by the applicant. Citizens who use COMPASS
save valuable time by having the ability to screen for services first and determine the likelihood of
being eligible. They also save time in not having to travel many times to a County Assistance
Office to apply for services. Community Partners who use the Community Partner View save
time with COMPASS because they do not have to call daily to check the status of their clients’
COMPASS applications, nor do they have to keep track of multiple paper copies of their
In the almost 4 years since its initial release, COMPASS has been extremely successful. Nearly
150,000 applications have been processed by the online system. In addition, 200,000 screening
applications to determine potential eligibility have been completed; of which, 34,000 were found
ineligible, thus eliminating what would have been fruitless work at the CAOs. Customer feedback
has been overwhelmingly positive. COMPASS functionality continues to grow as more programs
and new usability features are added with each new release of the web application. It is truly
evolving into a single point of access for all social service programs in Pennsylvania. COMPASS
successfully integrates the high technology capabilities of private industry with the mission of
social service agencies.
The COMPASS web application is housed on a Windows 2000 Data Center server. The
programming languages used are Visual Basic 6.0, Visual Basic .NET, ASP, ASP.NET, HTML,
interfaces to back-end systems through the use of OpenTI, webMethods, Netegrity, and
SiteMinder. The website passes data to the CIS mainframe, which is a UNISYS ES 7000.
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