Family Finances

“Find People Where They Are”: Four Experts on the Value of Person-Centered Practices in Benefits Design and Delivery

April 5, 2024  • Riani Carr, Jason Ewas & Marco Huerta

Facing unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, leaders working in public benefits across sectors and around the country acted quickly to deliver support to those who needed it most. Now, with the immediate crisis behind us but with many challenges and opportunities still needing to be addressed, those leaders are working on initiatives to increase access and improve user experience and efficacy of those systems, with many of their efforts aiming to advance financial stability and create a pathway to wealth-building for recipients.

One approach widely deployed in service of this goal is person-centered policy design. While this approach takes different forms in different contexts, it shares a unifying practice of directly engaging people with lived experience of the implemented or reformed policy to identify challenges and develop responsive solutions. 

This blog has two parts: First, we provide a brief overview of the benefits and growing use of person-centered insights in policy development across all levels of government, nonprofits, and private industry. Second, we interviewed four experts about why they think this approach is crucial for the effective delivery of public benefits and human services more broadly.

Person-Centered Insights in Practice

Person-centered insights are Aspen FSP’s approach to incorporating lived experience across our work. One example of how we put this work into practice is the Community Advisory Group (CAG). Established in December 2021, the CAG informs the program’s research, activities, and publications. The group is composed of six leaders with current or previous experience with financial insecurity, who have deep expertise as users of financial systems core to our work, and who are working to advance financial security in their communities through organizing, advocacy, or direct service. Our deep and ongoing partnership with the CAG exemplifies one of the many tools Aspen FSP utilizes to weave lived experience and community-based leadership throughout our work. This work is not linear, requiring humility, time, and iteration that creates meaningful partnerships, trust and resilient solutions.

Why Person-Centered Policy Design Can Improve Public Benefits Systems

The current system of public benefits in the United States can be cumbersome, imposing administrative burdens for benefits recipients and administrators, introducing barriers to receiving and maintaining benefits, and undermining people’s trust and confidence in these programs. These burdens have consequences:

  • When processes ignore people and their experiences, they impose a significant “time tax” on both parties, draining time and money to navigate red tape. 
  • These burdens also have a financial cost to the people who could most use them. A report by the White House notes that because of administrative burdens and barriers, an estimated sum of $140 billion in public benefits go unclaimed each year that individuals may otherwise may be eligible for. 

Person-centered approaches serve as one possible solution to overcoming these burdens and barriers to applying for public benefits by creating formal processes to identify unnecessary barriers or pain points in the systems.

The improvement of public benefits through person-centered insights offers more than just financial and time-saving benefits – it can support reliability, sufficiency and trust in systems, which can have a ripple effect beyond the direct interaction or program a person engages with. People are more likely to trust a process that they, or someone in their family or community, had a positive experience navigating rather than one that feels detached from their lived reality. 

In short, person-centered approaches can make systems more responsive, effective, and resilient. And benefit recipients, practitioners, caseworkers, and state officials reap the benefits. 

Momentum is Building for Person-Centered Public Benefits

Across the country, leaders have not only recognized the value of person-centered insights but have also put person-centered processes and initiatives into practice to improve benefits delivery. In part, this is because civic-tech organizations like Code for America, Benefits Data Trust, Nava, and Civilla, to name a few, have supported governments in developing innovative approaches that center individuals impacted by programs and lead to better outcomes. 

Below are a few examples of governments implementing person-centered processes:

For a comprehensive and recent summary of the field, the ACF Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation issued a report, A Review of Human-Centered Design in Human Services.

Benefits Leaders on Person-Centered Insights 

To further understand the importance of person-centered insights to the benefits delivery process, Aspen FSP interviewed individuals across various roles and backgrounds to share their own experiences. 

Kadisha Davis is a member of Aspen FSP’s Community Advisory Group and a Housing Policy Fellow for the Family Homelessness Coalition. There, she has been pushing for coordinated efforts focused on the needs of families experiencing housing instability while further strengthening the partnership between the community of families with lived experiences and key decision-makers. 

Why are person-centered insights so important to the design of benefits delivery for you? 

Kadisha Davis: It’s important, because we’re the people who actually have to use the system. Most times when people are designing these things, they’re not going to actually use these tools. When they’re not using the tool, sometimes you might not think about what people actually need to be able to use this properly. For it to be properly functional, you want to make sure that anybody can use this tool to make sure their life is being made better. 

So I think that’s why it’s better to have that kind of design, and to make sure what you’re doing is not also affecting and being harmful to a certain population that is out there.

So once you make a penny over [the income limit], you automatically get cut off a lot of things… But I think they [should] just make sure that they’re helping people more than harming them.

What are the best ways that benefits administrators can engage individuals from low-to-moderate income backgrounds and underrepresented communities in the benefits delivery process? 

Kadisha: Actually go where the people are. Don’t stay on your top executive floor. Go down to where the people are and ask them what they need.

If you don’t ask people what they need, you’re not gonna know what they actually need to do better. You might think one thing… and then you find out that’s not actually helpful. And then you waste all that time doing nothing. Find people where they are to help them.

Chelsey Hall & Elizabeth Newton, Colorado Department of Human Services

Chelsey Hall is the Director of Family and Community Engagement for the State of Colorado’s Department of Human Services. Chelsey leads community and family engagement for the department and facilitates the department’s Family Voice Council made up of community members with lived-systems experience. 

Elizabeth Newton is the Family Advisor for the Colorado Department of Human Services, where she infuses family voices into systems, policies, and procedures for services provided by the department. Elizabeth also served as a member of the Colorado Family Voice Council for three years prior to this role. 

Why do person-centered insights matter to the work you are conducting with the Colorado Department of Human Services? 

Chelsey Hall: There are millions of benefits as to why an agency would choose to have a person-centered approach. Colorado is really strong in our Two-generation approach. We think about the whole family dynamic. The Family Voice Council is a great show of that.

Internally, this approach builds knowledge, skills, and confidence in our staff to be able to engage with the community and better understand the approach… equitable work cultures equals equitable community engagements. 

There is a spectrum to how we engage communities in this person-centered design. Are we just asking them to fill out a survey, are we asking them to sit on an advisory council, or are we actually asking them to come be a colleague and employ them to sit alongside us and share the power in the decision-making? 

Elizabeth Newton: I was a member of the Family Voice Council… I have been a recipient of benefits, and that’s the reason why I was on the Council. I could say, on being a member, that knowing… that your voice is being heard and actually seeing change happen is more gratifying than anything.

I found such purpose and passion from being a member, that I wanted to take that energy of what I did in the Council and work within. 

What are some of the direct impacts to the delivery of public benefits that have been implemented since adopting the Family Voice Council? 

Chelsey: Our report that we put out… captured over 50 programmatic changes. To date, [there are] a grand total of a little under 75 changes which I can talk about. 

For example, [The Council] became more involved in the rulemaking process and helped pass roles that eliminated the cliff effect for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program for Families families’ parent fees moving forward. Parents weren’t initially involved in the rulemaking process. They started being involved. They started sharing their stories… and were able to pass that rule change which was huge and not something that we had seen before.

Michael Wilkening is a Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program and former Secretary of the State of California’s Health & Human Services (HHS) Agency. In addition to serving as Secretary, he also served as undersecretary of the agency for nearly ten years. 

Why do person-centered insights matter to an executive of HHS? 

Michael: It’s all about the person… you really are focused on two audiences that are complementary: One is the applicant or recipient of the services, and then the other are the case workers or the administrators of the programs. 

Being able to take those two viewpoints in and make sure that you’re designing the application process, the review processes, administration and the utilization in a way that works for those audiences is the goal. 

In your time as a Secretary, did you take steps to actively introduce person-centered insights into your agency? How? 

Michael: We started looking at how our data systems were put together. Many of the [benefits] recipients are receiving services across programs. We wanted to start getting insights into what that looked like– what their experiences were across multiple programs. 

So we started figuring out how to better align our data systems, how to get those connection points, how to put it in the framework so that we could actually share data across those programs… getting the data use agreements in place, starting to revisit how we’re collecting our data, how we’re utilizing the data. Creating that expectation that we were going to be doing things on a person-centered basis.

We started to reshape our departments and programs to focus on people and families in ways such as whole-person care. It is important to think about the person or family rather than just the program itself.  

What were some of the most important lessons you learned about centering people in the benefits delivery design process at your agency? 

Michael: It’s very rewarding and energizing for state staff to focus in this way. It’s fairly difficult to do as well. So, you have to be purposeful about it… It has to be a priority of leadership.

We build bureaucracies and programs that are centered around a specific thing. And it’s generally not built around people… those are built for administration. Those are built in ways that that kind of meet the needs of the government.

It takes being purposeful and focused in order to move that focus. For the person that’s applying for benefits and is utilizing benefits, they shouldn’t have to figure out how to navigate that bureaucracy. We need to make that easy for them. We need to make it seamless. We need to make it so that it’s clear that we’re focusing benefits on those people.


In summary, some of the key lessons from those interviews are that person-centered insights can: 

1. Improve trust in public benefits programs.

“Knowing that your voice is being heard and actually seeing change happen is more gratifying than anything.” -Elizabeth

2. Reduce barriers to accessing benefits.

“For the person that’s applying for benefits and is utilizing benefits, they shouldn’t have to figure out how to navigate that bureaucracy. We need to make that easy for them. We need to make it seamless.” -Michael

3. Help avoid negative unintended consequences, including asset limits and benefits cliffs.

“It’s better to have that kind of [person-centered] design, and to make sure what you’re doing is not also affecting and being harmful to a certain population.” -Kadisha

“You do need to compensate people for their lived experience, but also realize the effect that it could have if people are receiving benefits.” -Elizabeth

While the work leaders are implementing on person-centered policy is promising and energizing, even more work is currently underway or in planning stages in states across the country. Now is the time to elevate best practices and lessons learned and commit to developing the best tools to create more effective, more trusted, and more person-centered public benefits systems. 

Subscribe to our newsletter or contact Riani Carr, Program Associate, to learn more about person-centered insights and how you or your organization can embed person-centered insights into your work.


The Aspen Institute Financial Security Program thanks the Community Advisory Group (CAG) for their insights and contributions towards incorporating person-centered principles in this blog. We would like to acknowledge CAG member Kadisha Davis for contributing to the title: “Find People Where They Are.”