In late April, more than 30 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits as the economic fallout of COVID-19 closed workplaces and devastated businesses.
Their rush to already overwhelmed government unemployment services sent claims and inquiries soaring, and government IT systems nationwide floundered because of the surge. Websites crashed and claims stalled, delaying unemployment benefits disbursement.
But the Delaware Labor Department website didn’t crash, not even once. In fact, it added new features. The reason for the state’s success was the relationship building, information sharing and preparation of technologists, James Collins, Delaware’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), said in a late April interview with GovLoop.
Understanding Pain Points
You’ve heard all across the nation about unemployment issues and how the departments of labor nationally are struggling to keep up with the demands of unemployment benefits, which are critical for people being able to pay their bills, take care of their family. So, we got engaged in a conversation with [our Labor Department], and they were struggling with some things that we could be helpful with. We weren’t the first thought of, “Hey, let’s talk to the CIO or the IT people about this.” They were just doing the best with what they had available to them.
In the Department of Labor, they have an Unemployment Insurance Division. That’s where their demand has increased exponentially. They’re processing in a week what they processed in months before. And so, behind the scenes, we added some processing power, some horsepower — however you want to put it — to their infrastructure.
Collins’ team didn’t just package up added servers, CPUs or RAM. Although IT did increase processing power, which ultimately prevented the website from going down, Delaware’s Technology and Information Department (DTI) went beyond technobabble.
After making sure everything worked, the team added common-sense functionality for employees and the public.
For example, for employees, Collins and his team added a monitoring function to Labor’s online resources. That way, if the department saw a rise in visitors and users, it could contact IT to preemptively add more processing power. For the public, DTI added automated tracking messages, like the ones online shoppers receive, to unemployment claims. By sending these tracking messages, Labor can reduce the number of inquiries and lighten stress on call centers and websites.
Those are nice messages, but they have a purpose. They don’t want me calling asking about my package. They don’t want me having any insecurity that my order’s been received, that it’s being processed, that my package is being shipped. That’s how they get all these calls coming asking questions. And so, we just laid out some of those strategies to the Department of Labor. That resonated with them immediately.
We’re in the process of being able to roll out some of those proactive communications that are going to be a win-win. It’s going to be a win for Labor because they’re not going to be deluged with inquiries. It’s going to be a win for those people who need to access those resources to know that [their] benefits are being processed.
Building on Groundwork
Delaware’s IT team was well equipped to deal with COVID-19, in part because of regular communication with other states; the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), which Collins was president of; and other Delaware departments, he said.
Collins emphasized that he was just one call away from Delaware’s service-providing departments — a connection he established long before the pandemic. Regularly, he’d pop into offices to build an understanding of their needs and wants. The role of his staff is to support those departments’ missions, Collins said.
It’s a result of a lot of groundwork on behalf of not only our IT team, but the CIOs’ IT teams across the nation. We can’t really have a conversation about innovation if you’re not nailing the basics. If you think about it like this, you don’t really think about your electricity provider often, because it just works. And until there’s some type of crisis, and you’re like: “Oh, it’s not working. What the heck?” That becomes a crisis in and of itself.
Recently, some state employees sent Collins emails thanking him and his team for enabling the virtual delivery of critical government services, from education to press conferences to health care. He’s always quick to share that feedback in town halls with his staff, which is entirely remote.
But Collins also noted that technology has had these abilities for a long time. Digital government, he said, is flexing its muscles right now and showing why it and the people behind it deserve their time in the spotlight.
I also think that we will see an acceleration of digital government because citizens have now been forced to engage government digitally. They’re going to get accustomed to getting services from anywhere, at any time, from any device. And I think that we’re going to see an acceleration of investment.
This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “CIO Perspectives: A New Vision for the Government Workplace.” Download the full report here.