Play: Use technology to make the transition from in-person to remote assistance easier

In this play:

This play was written by Alluma, one of the partners in the Social Tech Collaborative.

Before the COVID-19 emergency, many agencies administering social services programs were already adopting remote options to apply and enroll so that clients did not need to visit an office to do everything. During the COVID-19 emergency, it’s simply not possible to conduct business as usual if staff and clients are to be kept safe. Agencies need to make it possible for clients to do anything and everything needed to access programs without visiting an office. Policies for many of the programs people are relying on for basic needs are changing rapidly to make remote assistance possible, and these are only part of the effort needed to transition to completely remote assistance. This play provides guidance to agencies on how to use technology in ways to make this rapid transition smoother and more successful.

Best practices for this play

What can be done quickly

Below are good practices that can potentially be done easily and quickly by your agency, depending on what tools the agency is already equipped with today. If your agency cannot do these easily or quickly, then aim to do them in the long-term.

  • Allow all assistance, appointments, and interviews to be done remotely. If any are required, also consider waiving those requirements, at least temporarily.

  • Set clients up for success by sending them information and reminders. Ideas for how to do this include: Let clients know about their options to apply, maintain, and renew benefits or services (such as through an online portal, over the phone, etc.). Include instructions on how to use them. Provide clients an easy-to-understand checklist of which documents count for different eligibility requirements. Explain what to do if a client does not have a needed document. Send clients reminders about upcoming things they need to do, such as appointments, interviews, or renewal deadlines. Send appointment and interview details in advance, including what clients may need to bring and be prepared to talk about.

  • Give clients more control over their time. Ways to do this include:
    • If using an instant messaging platform, ensure that response times are much shorter than they may be for phone calls. Individuals are prepared to wait on hold when they reach a call center, but expect an immediate response to an instant message.
    • For appointments and interviews, allow on-demand scheduling. This can be done via online portals, text messaging, etc. to schedule, reschedule, or cancel.
    • Notify callers of expected wait times, and offer an option for the agency to call the client back instead of keeping the client on the phone.
  • Reassure clients. Ways to do this include: If making outbound calls to clients, work with phone companies to be sure your agency name appears on the caller ID, rather than an unfamiliar number clients may not answer. After an action is completed (e.g. an application is submitted or a document uploaded), provide the client with a confirmation on the screen and/or by email.
What to aim for long-term

Below are things your agency can do that may involve more effort and time to implement. They are worth the investment, however, as they will help your agency’s clients far beyond just this current crisis.

  • Cultivate more communication channels that clients can use for applying, maintaining, and renewing their access to benefits or services. Examples to explore are text messaging, instant messaging platforms, chatbots, interactive voice response (IVR) phone systems, and online portals.

  • To get the most out of your new communication channels, consider making these policy and technology updates too: Accept alternative forms of collecting signatures (e.g. electronic or telephonic signatures) for applications and renewals. Allow multiple ways to submit documentation. Allow clients to take photos of documents through their mobile devices, and then submit them through online portals, text messages, instant messaging platforms, etc.

  • Expand functionality of online portals to enable clients to do more things themselves. Obvious functionality to add include ways for clients to report changes and check benefits or services statuses themselves. But there may be additional ideas that your agency’s clients would appreciate.

A few more points to consider
  • Take a “mobile first” approach to online options. Design first and foremost for mobile devices because, for many people, their phone is the primary or only way to access the internet. You can’t assume that everyone has a computer.
  • Make sure that an online service works on all available browsers (for example, Chrome, Firefox, Safari).
  • Remind staff and clients to either delete personal information used on a mobile device (including tablets) if it is a shared device or to enable the device’s security features.
  • See our play on text messaging best practices for further tips.


Related categories

Mobile Renewals Document handling Interviews


We encourage feedback, comments, and contributions to the Social Tech Playbook. Do you have experience with this play that you can share with your colleagues in the social services sector? We’d love to hear from you.

How to provide feedback