Case Study
Applying + Enrolling

Learning Towards an API Standard for WIC

Learning Towards an API Standard for WIC
Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University
Maja Ochojska
Learning Towards an API Standard for WIC
Project Partners
Nava, WIC Montana
Sector of partners
Government Agency
Benefits Program
WIC: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children
Level of government

Problem Statement

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has been found to be very effective at improving nutrition for recipients and their children. Despite its effectiveness, only 45.6% of eligible pregnant people participated in 2022; the in-person appointment that starts the WIC application process is a common barrier to enrollment. The largely closed WIC management information systems (MIS) make interoperability, information sharing, and additions of new tools or functionality difficult. An Application Programming Interface (API) standard for WIC that enables existing systems to more easily connect with outside tools could be used to increase program access.

Project Description

Nava PBC is a public benefit corporation which specializes in creating digital services for technological challenges in benefit delivery. In 2020, Nava conducted research on behalf of the National WIC Association and published a landscape report, which raised the idea of using APIs to connect legacy and disparate MIS with new tools for accessing and administering WIC. An API could serve as a digital intermediary between, in this case, WIC’s MIS and new, digital tools for WIC applicants and staff. On the national level, an API standard could provide a shared, well-defined format for implementing APIs across states’ MIS platforms. An API standard in WIC would enable state-level administrations and local clinics to share data, resources, and information despite their differing MIS and digital tools, creating a more interoperable WIC ecosystem. Nava examined and learned from different examples of other APIs and similar systems, such as the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources standard, as well as the Australian Government’s Consumer Data Standards repository. There is also a related precedent in the WIC program itself. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) defined the WIC Universal MIS-EBT (WUMEI) standard during the implementation of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), standardizing functional requirements for MIS to interface with EBT.

Nava then partnered with the state of Montana to learn towards an API standard that could simultaneously address issues in data management and lower the barriers to connecting for WIC participants and staff. Building on Montana’s own assessment of needs and barriers to delivery, Nava worked with stakeholders to develop a detailed understanding of their experiences and future visions for the program. Following these consultations, Nava learned that their deliverables would have to account for the highly personal and human-interaction based nature of WIC.

Nava’s team developed and tested a digital eligibility screener for applicants, which would connect with Montana’s WIC system through a prototype API endpoint. The eligibility screener, hosted on a web application, was designed to be a digital version of what a first conversation may look like between clinic staff and a WIC applicant. The screener provides potential applicants with information about WIC, like eligibility criteria based on income and/ or enrollment in other benefit programs, while gathering essential information by asking a few questions about their circumstances, which can then be used by clinic staff to make an initial assessment of their eligibility. At the end of the screener, the applicant can select the WIC clinic that they will be able to access during business hours for their first appointment.

The prototype API endpoint then converts applicant responses in the screener into a CSV file that clinic staff can use to manually enter into their MIS to begin enrollment; this includes applicants’ contact information that staff can use to reach out and schedule an appointment. Usually, applicants are making first contact with WIC, and this screener aims to reduce that burden on participants while giving staff needed information for their initial contact. The eligibility screener and the prototype API endpoint were tested by WIC users and clinic staff respectively, who provided feedback on the design and usability of the products, which in turn informed Nava’s design and content choices in an interactive and iterative development process.

Project Outcomes and Impact

Nava and Montana’s partnership illustrated the need and desire for technology-supported solutions to tackle issues in program accessibility, information sharing, and information management. According to Nava’s project staff, the prototype API endpoint and its demonstration alongside the eligibility screener yielded positive feedback from WIC clinic staff and applicants, who found both tools easy to navigate, and the information given and collected through the screener tool relevant and engaging. Nava is continuing their partnership with Montana on additional projects in the benefit delivery space.

In early 2022, Nava shared about their planned work with Montana’s WIC program, supporting their vision of a nation-wide API standard as a tool for better participant and staff experiences. They also hosted “demonstration days” during which they shared their progress and findings. In 2023, Nava released two case studies, one on their design process and outcomes of the eligibility screener, and one on their prototype API endpoint. Additionally, they published an overview of their work with Montana, including a further refined vision of an API standard in WIC. Nava’s work on WIC in Montana is accessible through their GitHub repository.

Replicable Takeaways

In the case of WIC in Montana, the screener tool and API prototype demonstrates a new pathway for applicants to get connected to the application process. Using an API standard, digital solutions to improve program access could be connected to pre-existing back end systems, addressing the immediate need for modernization and interoperability, which could complement other efforts to promote a broader, more long-term vision of modernization in WIC and beyond. An API standard could enable additional functionality and connections to tools for WIC programs around the country; this approach could also be relevant for connecting new tools with existing systems in other public benefits programs.

Given the decentralized state of WIC on the federal level and the socioeconomic disparities across states, existing systems governing WIC and the needs and capacities of clinics will vary greatly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the program nationwide, has issued a research brief describing how enabling remote services in WIC application and benefit disbursement processes during the COVID-19 pandemic made the program safer, more accessible and more convenient for applicants. Plans for modernizations and change at this scale, like an API standard, would need to be supported by both state and federal partners.

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