Apr 19 2021

Wisconsin Teams with Federal 18F Organization to Improve Unemployment System

By partnering with the federal government, the state aims to speed up the selection of a vendor to help modernize its legacy unemployment insurance system.

In October, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development announced a partnership with Google Cloud to speed up the processing of unemployment claims following a deluge of applications. Now, the state is aiming for a more far-reaching modernization effort of its unemployment insurance system.

In late March, Wisconsin partnered with 18F, the federal government’s digital services consulting agency housed within the General Services Administration, to overhaul its unemployment system.

The modernization push came after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called a special session of the state legislature to upgrade the system, though state lawmakers did not provide funding for the project. The state will spend $1.2 million for 18F’s services, funding acquired through a $2.4 million federal grant.

There is clear urgency to update a system that became overwhelmed in 2020. As Government Technology reports, “between March 2020 and January 2021, DWD received 8.8 million unemployment claims, which surpassed the total number of claims of the previous four years combined by 1.6 million.”

“Typically, it can take over a year just to lay out the requirements for a full system overhaul of this scale,” Amy Pechacek, Evers’ nominee to lead DWD, said in a press release. “The department is on an aggressive timeline to begin a full-scale modernization of the UI system, so we’ve worked to start this project as quickly as possible. Building on DWD’s success over the past four months, we are taking a nimbler approach to modernization that can provide faster results with the federal funding that is available.”

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How 18F Aims to Help Wisconsin Modernize Its UI System

Modernizing the unemployment insurance system is a clear priority for Evers.

“Our antiquated system isn’t quite as old as I am, but it has been around since Richard Nixon was president — this system isn’t new, and these problems aren’t, either,” Evers, 69, said during his State of the State address in January, StateScoop reports. “And Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame. The fact of the matter is that previous administrations and more than a decades’ worth of legislators have known this system was outdated and couldn’t handle an economic crisis like the one this pandemic presented, and they never took the time to fix it.”

18F is primarily helping the DWD select a vendor to upgrade its system on an accelerated timeline, a GSA press release notes. Acquisition experts at the agency will leverage product thinking, user-centered design and modular contracting, with the goal of issuing a request for proposal or a series of RFPs no later than 10 weeks after the project commences. DWD’s contracting team will execute the final contract selection.

18F will use an agile acquisition methodology to make large and complex technology acquisitions more manageable via “successive, interoperable increments.”

The agency will lend technical expertise to DWD to “conduct user research, develop the procurement package, hold an acquisition workshop to draft a solicitation, help identify qualified vendors, and de-risk the procurement through prototyping.”

DWD also signed a memorandum of understanding on March 9 to receive no-cost preliminary consulting services from U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on helping governments quickly deploy IT solutions and infrastructure. USDR will help DWD developing short- and long-term goals and plans.

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The Future of Wisconsin’s Unemployment Systems

DWD notes in its press release that its legacy unemployment insurance system “limited its customer service options and slowed the processing of unemployment claims both during the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

DWD also was forced to delay implementation of new federal unemployment programs and extensions created in response to the pandemic as a result of the antiquated system.

Once a contract for the upgraded system is awarded, the first phase of DWD’s IT modernization project will be “an integrated cloud-based phone and messaging center” that will enable customer service responsiveness on claims information at any time, “eliminating the need for restricted call center hours,” the department states in its release.

DWD will also deploy “tools to efficiently respond to program changes and better monitor and analyze agent performance.”

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