In recent days, CivSource has been covering a story that touches over 15 million people in America. Media outlets from across the country have reported the troubles facing their state’s unemployment benefits computer systems. Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina and California represent a portion of those states struggling to update computer code that would give their jobless residents another fourteen to twenty weeks of assistance.
In all, nearly a dozen states have reported problems delivering unemployment checks, not because they lack funds, but because their computer systems are too old.
In an interview last week, Dave McCurley, Global Managing Director of Human Services for Accenture, indicated that increased caseloads at a time of reduced budgets and layoffs were adding strain to an already weakened human services system. “We know states have to reduce costs,” McCurley told CivSource, “At the same time, budget cuts and caseworker layoffs are making it harder to deliver services on time.”
In addition to these factors, another common challenge facing state agencies is working with technologies of various capability and age. Mr. McCurley said he was seeing more request for proposals (RFPs) from states, asking for solutions that had service oriented architecture (SOA) components. This means that an increasing number of states have computer systems, designed by various companies, that need to be updated and improved without necessarily replacing the whole system.
Accenture has developed such a platform, designed to help government agencies improve performance and business processes through automation, managed workflow and by facilitating interaction between caseworkers and citizens. The Accenture Public Service Platform, or APSP, was developed largely to support all kinds of public sector entities, though the first iteration is focused on human services, according to Mr. McCurley. The company has a robust research and development department that focuses on SOA, McCurley said, that tests commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products and open-source products, “constantly keeping us up to speed on the best-of-breed products.”
“APSP allows health agencies to deal with caseload growth without having to use more people,” said McCurley. And because the company is software agnostic, APSP utilizes open-source and commercial components, allowing governments to integrate the new platform with legacy and external systems already in place. “They don’t have to throw out the baby with bathwater.”
Quicker implementation, quicker updates
According to a spokeswoman for California’s Employment Development Department, their problems stem from a combination of complex new benefit formulas and the agency’s outdated computer system. “So what we have to do here in EDD is we have to go in, and we actually have to update about a half-million lines of code in 25- to 30-year-old programs,” EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy told a local news station.
When asked about how APSP could address the unemployment checks problem facing many state agencies, Mr. McCurley indicated they are currently working with states wrestling with that very issue. “One of the reasons for the SOA approach is that we could utilize a commercial rules engine,” which allows agencies to change eligibility requirements only for those segments of unemployed who are eligible, McCurley said. “None of the unemployment systems, to my knowledge, are using commercial rules engines. We’ve found that the timeframe is literally 30-40 percent of what it would be to update new rules without it.”
Accenture’s platform allows for quick implementation, six to eighteen months according to company officials, and it can be done at fractions of the normal integration costs. “We’ve had clients implement [SOA solutions] for one-tenth,” of similar offerings, McCurley said.
The company is currently in contract negotiations with one major implementation that will eventually have thousands of users and support upwards of 2 million clients. And according to McCurley, because the system is designed to incorporate additional functionality when budgets allow, states can approach their system incrementally.
“Clients can be as flexible as they need to be. No matter what the best of breed is today, it’s likely to be different in the future. This solution allows us to integrate the next best thing,” McCurley concluded.