Aging. Clumsy. Expensive.
These are the last words anyone wants to hear used to describe the technology they depend on at work. Yet for the estimated 7,600 employees at the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), this isn’t a hypothetical scenario but their everyday reality.
“HUD has antiquated technology systems that increasingly place our programs at risk,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson wrote in the department’s 2020 budget request. “These aging systems do not interface well, are clumsy to work with, expensive to support, and need to be updated.”
At risk are programs that make up HUD’s roughly $50 billion portfolio aimed at providing rental assistance to low-income families, offering homeless assistance grants, removing lead-based paint from older homes and more.
In September 2018, HUD took a major step to identify the upgrades the department needs to bring its technology systems and accounting procedures into the 21st century. GovLoop recently sat down with HUD Deputy Chief Information Officer Kevin R. Cooke Jr. to learn what’s happened over the past several months and what will be different for employees and the individuals they serve.
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s briefly review how we go to this point. The effort underway at HUD is part of an interagency agreement between the department and the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence (CoE). For those who aren’t familiar, CoEs are a governmentwide initiative aimed at accelerating IT modernization. Ran by the GSA, the initiative is the brainchild of the White House’s Office of American Innovation.
HUD is the second agency to house the CoEs, which you can think of as centralized resources of public and private sector talent who use industry best practices in design, acquisition and IT delivery to modernize government. The Agriculture Department was the first agency to take in the CoEs.
At HUD, the CoEs are focused in these key areas: contact center, customer experience, cloud adoption, data analytics and workforce reskilling. The discovery phase launched last year and took a hard look at the status of these efforts across HUD, with a focus on addressing areas that impact citizens.
Among the biggest changes employees can expect to see as part of the CoE initiative is the creation of an Office of Customer Experience, which aims to ensure a consistent customer experience to every constituent who interacts with HUD. In addition to the new office, HUD is also exploring the adoption of more cloud-based technologies to support the use of artificial intelligence and digital activities.
One example of a digital activity being considered is a new enterprise service that would help program offices create electronic forms. At face value, this may not mean much to the average employee, but let it sink in for a minute. Think about the thousands of forms that citizens use to apply for programs and all that goes into it: time-consuming creation, extensive maintenance, and the hassle of trying to extract data from static forms.
That’s how Cooke wants employees to think about this IT modernization journey — not in terms of another initiative coming out of the CIO office but rather a means to better mission outcomes and customer service.
Phase one of this CoE initiative at HUD involves a comprehensive assessment of the IT needs and challenges facing the department. “We’ve morphed that into the next portion of phase one, which is to do some prototyping based on what we found as a part of the discovery [phase],” Cooke said. “And so, what that means is coming up with … a pilot type of program.”
HUD will wrap up phase one with prototype activities in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Those proof of concept projects will serve as the foundations for phase two, which is the actual implementation of the projects.
Why HUD Wants Cloud
As part of HUD’s future state, the department is eyeing cloud-based initiatives such as electronic forms and the use of artificial intelligence for various projects, including intelligent data extraction from those forms. Determining what data will move to the cloud or remain on-premise is a key part of these efforts.
The department began by reviewing what kind of technology it has that is obsolete or nearing obsolescence, as well as the amount of time and money spent on manual processes and outdated approaches to IT. Forms stuck out as a major drain of time and resources.
“Instead of using people to move through all these forms and to gather information, you’re using the artificial intelligence to grab the information and you can put it in the right place,” Cooke said.
Creating an Office of Customer Experience
Part of the shift toward improving the public’s interactions with HUD is reducing the number of clicks it takes for people to get the services they need.
The department has field offices in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. “We want it to be the same experience, whether you come in physically into one of our locations, whether it’s through web services or phone calls,” Cooke said.
In normalizing the experience across platforms, HUD can better measure how customers are interacting with its services. For example, HUD wants to measure if people are receiving accurate information.
To eliminate barriers to better customer services and assessing satisfaction, the department is standing up an Office of Customer Experience. The office will serve as a centralized place to build an understanding of customers’ needs and use it to stand up agencywide initiatives, Cooke said. “The understanding is not designed to favor or forward any specific mission area; rather it applies equally to all mission areas.”
Regardless of which channel people use to interact with HUD, including call centers, there should be a seamless and simple way to get the right information. Cooke said that HUD is exploring the use of a 311-type system where the public can call one number to get to the services they need, but the department has not yet settled on a final way forward.
Preparing the Workforce for Change
To effectively implement all the plans mentioned earlier, HUD needs to ensure it has the right people and skill sets to support these new activities. In some cases, new skills will be required to oversee new approaches to using technology, Cooke said.
For example, expanding the use of data analytics requires an assessment of the people internally who are adept in that field. Department leaders must also consider what’s required to get the most out of using analytics and what training might be needed to get the workforce up to speed.
Under the CoE initiative, a determination will be made on whether to have federal employees perform specific services or outsource those functions to vendors. Cooke noted there will be opportunities for employees to get involved in the rollout of new capabilities under the CoE initiative, and those details will be communicated within the program offices.
“In short — when faced with a huge issue like aging technology and increasing program risk you need to take a wide-reaching and innovative approach to change,” Cooke said. “That is what the CoE initiative is doing for HUD.
Photo Credit: HUD Flickr