CIO Jason Sankey expanded the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services’ rollout of Microsoft Surface Pros to his state’s counties earlier this year when the pandemic hit.

Sep 24 2020

Counties Use Modern Tech to Improve Public Assistance Programs

Vulnerable populations benefit when IT solutions help drive innovation in how counties implement public aid programs.

Around the country, human services agencies are modernizing IT systems to speed the delivery of public assistance, a resource even more critical amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout. 

Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other services help millions of Americans, and agencies rely heavily on technology to administer them. Most states centralize these programs, but a handful use a state-supervised/county-administered (SSCA) model in which county employees handle applications, eligibility and other functions.

SSCA states aren’t identical in how they operate, and neither are their counties. Therein lies the challenge — and the opportunity — for IT. SSCA states such as Ohio, Colorado and Minnesota are using technology to increase consistency, improve workflows and advance data analytics. That pays dividends for IT staff and for state and county employees.

Modernization can elevate the client experience too, says Rachel Cahill, a consultant and public benefits policy expert. “When it’s done well, it gives clients more choice in how to apply and how to get information about benefits,” she says.

Ohio Shifted Quickly to Telework

Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services was several years into a modernization effort by the time the pandemic arrived. ODJFS partnered with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services to improve eligibility and enrollment processes and deployed a statewide electronic document management system — now the umbrella for nearly all benefit programs — alongside a rollout of Microsoft Surface Pros.

With 17,000 staffers, moving even a portion of them to a single device simplified IT support and reduced costs, says ODJFS CIO Jason Sankey. For Child Protective Services caseworkers, LTE-model Surface Pros were a significant timesaver, enabling them to take notes in the field rather than have to drive back to their offices.

These benefits, together with technical features of the Surface Pros, became even more important once the pandemic hit and IT had to prepare ODJFS employees to telework. That’s prompted IT to expand its rollout of Surface Pros to get even more of them into the hands of employees in 88 counties, Sankey says.

Nearly all ODJFS staff switched to telework, but the state prioritized remote work tools for staffers handling unemployment calls and claims, Sankey says. Surface Pros made it easier to equip these employees with softphones so they could answer call center requests from home.

“That was an initial challenge for us, but the Surface devices gave us that flexibility to quickly get that rolled out,” he says. In addition, the Pros’ built-in cameras supported Microsoft Teams for meetings and collaboration. “It’s just nimbler if you’re able to use the Surface Pro or some other type of mobile device, as opposed to desktops.”

These moves, combined with a deployment of Lenovo Unified Workspaces and approximately 8,000 VPN tokens, ensured that ODJFS employees could securely access the applications they needed.

“It meant we didn’t have a disruption of service, and that was one of the things we wanted to avoid,” Sankey says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How have states embraced digital services during the pandemic? 

Colorado Works to Balance State and Local Needs

The ability to quickly stand up telework resulted, in part, from Ohio’s move toward unified technology, Sankey says. While counties sometimes require specific tools, he says, “we want to look at enterprise solutions. Let’s not operate county by county.”

In Colorado, the Department of Human Services is increasing flexibility in an IT environment that, historically, has been challenging, by launching its new Colorado Benefits Management System on Amazon Web Services and the Salesforce Government Cloud platform. The transition, completed in mid-2019, was a lift-and-shift from a state data center to AWS and a replacement of the user interface with Salesforce Lightning components, says Director of Business Technology Sarah Nelson.

“As Colorado uses an integrated data system for Medicaid, food assistance and TANF, making a program change in one area would inevitably break somebody else’s functionality, no matter how much testing we did,” Nelson says. “This platform has already given us more control and the ability to move faster. We’ve had to implement emergency federal rules because of COVID, and it’s been possible to do that.”

The Salesforce platform serves approximately 4,800 users at the county level who rely on CBMS to administer benefits, says Nelson.

Jason Sankey, CIO, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services
We want to look at ­enterprise ­solutions. Let’s not ­operate ­county by county.”

Jason Sankey CIO, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services

As in most SSCA states, some of Colorado’s 64 counties augment the state’s IT infrastructure with their own tools, such as ancillary document management solutions. Variation in ­systems and workflows — for instance, one county might have a large volume of paper-based applications — make it harder to optimize the capabilities of a shared platform, Nelson says.

“We can much more easily provide performance metrics out of Salesforce, but that only measures what’s already in the system,” she says. “We’re always in dialogue about how to balance standard practice and good outcomes with the desire, ability and legal authority of counties to do some of their own decision-making about how their process is going to work.”

That said, Nelson sees Colorado DHS as just beginning to leverage the platform’s potential. “Modernizing these big systems in the way that we’ve done positions us well to do better interoperability in the future,” she says.

Integration was also a goal of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, which partnered with Minnesota IT Services in 2017 to launch a five-year modernization plan. With 87 counties and 11 tribal nations to support, the plan sought to streamline and connect systems to facilitate advances such as integrated electronic health records.

“DHS is focused on creating a single place where people can connect with us for services,” says Katie Bauer, a DHS spokesperson.

Particularly when it comes to serving vulnerable populations, Cahill notes, technology works best when it aligns with real-world experiences. “If you want your technology to be successful, you need it to be responsive to actual users,” she says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how data analysis opens doors for new outcomes at state and local agencies.

How Data Analytics Helps States with Programs

In all three states, advanced technologies provide a foundation to leverage data more effectively.

Minnesota’s modernization included the rollout of Tableau Server’s data analysis and presentation tools. Public-facing dashboards make it easy to share financial, population, program and performance information, Bauer says, while secure access lets employees use Tableau for data-driven service delivery and policy development.

30%

The estimated portion of SNAP recipients who reside in a county-administered state

Source: Center for Law and Social Policy, “Ten Degrees of Decentralization: Overview of SNAP Operations in County-Administered States,” April 2018

“These dashboards are a part of a wider push at DHS to promote transparency and provide data to the public and our partners,” Bauer says.

Data analytics is part of the vision for Colorado too. Having all the major state systems on a shared integration platform is already yielding more timely analysis, says Nelson — a must in the era of COVID-19.

“As we get into this cadence of data as a business asset, instead of an elusive thing that you have to go to IT to get, I think it’s going to change how decision-makers can react to things,” she says.

The value of speed in the public sector, particularly when it comes to technology, has been a key lesson of the pandemic, says Ohio’s Sankey.

“We were able to be very flexible during this pandemic, but normally technology moves a lot more slowly,” he says. “Especially when we deliver so many critical services, we have to stay at the forefront of technology at all times when possible.”

Photography By Jonathan Robert Willis