State of Michigan

Increasing transparency in establishing child support obligations

Helping to fix a stressful process at a stressful time

Establishing the amount of support a family requires to support their children can be a complex endeavour. U.S. states have various means for calculating the right amount of support given many factors. Sensitive input is required from both custodial and non-custodial parties to determine the support that should be available to the children.

Like all U.S. states, the State of Michigan has a specific formula to figure out the correct level of child support per family, calculated via its child support calculator. This calculator, however, was not addressing all the needs of the 3,000+ caseworkers using it, nor providing enough transparency to parents to explain how the recommended support amount was derived. As a result, the outcomes left many parents confused and unhappy about support amounts, while caseworkers did not have the tools or insight to explain why a parent should pay the recommended amount.

Initially, the Fjord team was asked to join the existing Accenture team in the State of Michigan offices to help make the calculator easier to fill in and ensure the accuracy of the results derived. But after exploring the greater service system and learning from caseworkers who use the tool, we uncovered deeper pain points that needed attention in order to truly turn the child support calculator into a service aid. A co-designed tool resulted, which solved those deeper issues by helping employees give better customer service.

A Co-Designed Solution

Our team consisted of usability designers from Accenture, service design experts from Fjord, and State of Michigan employees. Together, we surfaced the pain points in each step of the child support settlement procedure and co-designed solutions for each one.

As with all projects, we first spoke to the people directly affected, including a variety of caseworkers who are involved in helping parents through the child support procedure.

We quickly discovered that the main issue for both parents wasn’t accuracy of the result. Instead, it was having an assurance that the resulting obligation was fair.  In addition, caseworkers did not have the proper tools to fairly moderate these conversations. Parents were sharing highly sensitive information, like salaries, with caseworkers who had to enter that information into a tool that was not optimized for consistency and transparency.  The results often felt arbitrary to all parties.  Naturally, parents as well as caseworkers felt frustrated after less-than-satisfactory service experiences.

We had a unique one today with one NCP (non-custodial parent) and two different support amounts for two different periods, and it WORKED LIKE MAGIC!

Instead of treating the project as a usability design “refresh,” we chose to approach this as a service design challenge. We needed to turn the job of filling in the calculator into a clear, collaborative, human interaction, one that allowed caseworkers to explain to parents what the calculator was doing and how their child-support decision was being reached. And we wanted to verify that the new and improved calculator could be one step of a broader customer service overhaul.

As part of this process (and all of our projects), we had a very specific way of testing the solutions. We repeatedly test solutions as we build them, as part of our iterative, co-design process with our clients and partners. In this case, we shared our progress with a group of up to 20 state employees every two weeks. We gathered and incorporated their feedback into the next stage of development, so we consistently knew we were on the right track.

The Results

We launched the new child support calculator in November 2015. A couple of the new design features have made a particular impact:

Saving time via new dashboards

We added personal home screens for all caseworkers, with a dashboard where they could see all of their active cases and child support recommendations. This alone has allowed caseworkers to see results in one view, versus having to traverse through four or five different screens to see the information.

Transparency at all times

As Michigan caseworkers work through the calculation, there’s now a figure constantly visible in the bottom corner of the screen. For the first time, parents can now see how the final figure is reached. It has made a huge difference in how fair people feel the result is.

More info at our fingertips

One of the changes caseworkers loved most? Auto-calculation. Now, if a parent asks what support they would get during any time frame, the answer is just a click away.

More effective court time

The new calculator now creates a more exhaustive report specifically tailored to courtroom requirements. We designed the final report with caseworkers to help ensure they have all the information they need to present to the judge.

With a focus on a better outcome for families, not just an easy-to-use automated tool, we have been able to speed up the process, improve visibility of results and infuse transparency throughout the process. In the first 10 weeks the application was available, we saw an 8.5% increase in the calculations associated to the court case.  Additionally, users can accomplish the same results with a single calculation, which previously required two, reducing calculations from 52 to 26.

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