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The US state of Maine is aiming to cut its administration costs by automating many of the processes used in government.
Home to 1.3 million people, the state has limited pubic funds available to invest in technology, but is making savings by gradually automating its services, said chief information officer Jim Smith.
The project, which has cost $2m to date, has its origins some two-and-a-half years ago when the state began investing in business process management (BPM) technology.
Maine had reached a point where it was running on 20-year-old IT systems and needed to do things differently, said Smith in an interview with Computer Weekly.
"The state of Maine, like other states, is completely paper bound. We are manual process bound. States don't have a lot of money to invest in new systems, so we asked ourselves how we could make transformational change in a world like this," said Smith.
Choosing a BPM supplier
The state evaluated a range of BPM suppliers and used the process to develop a better idea of its requirements.
"We met with vendors, and created a rubric to figure out what our values were, what we were looking for," said Doug Averill, director of business enterprise transformation.
Maine opted for Pegasystems, as it offered enterprise-scale capabilities and was built with a business focus, rather than an IT focus, said Smith.
"We looked at vision, where the company was going," he said. "Pegasystems is solving business problems, and that's where we wanted to go."
Adding efficiency to business processes
The state started with a small case management project in the Maine Department of Labor to test the technology.
It followed up by developing a more sophisticated application to manage commercial fishing permits, which enabled people to apply for licences online or from a mobile phone.
"It is amazingly complicated. You would think someone comes in, they put their money down, they ask for a fishing licence or lobster licence, and that is it, but there are so many cross-checks," said Smith.
The application allows fishermen to record their catches on a mobile phone. It is also capable of initiating enforcement action if they are in breach of their licence, making automated checks with the coastguard, as well as with the criminal justice department to ensure applicants do not have a criminal record or owe money to the government.
Another application has been developed to automatically track progress on invoices being processed by the state. The administration previously relied on a team of 60 people to support bill payments, and because the system was largely paper-based there was no way to track bill payments when suppliers rang up with a query.
The state has now automated the process so managers can see the status of each bill at any time. "As a manager, I now know how the work is flowing, I can see how people are performing and I can answer that question, if someone asks, What happened to my payment?" said Smith.
Agile development approach
Maine's IT department has introduced agile techniques which allow it to produce new applications in a matter of days, which might have taken one or two years to develop previously.
The IT department has redesigned a building to create scrum rooms for agile development and put 50 of its IT staff through scrum training. They have been able to combine agile techniques with Pega's cloud service to develop new applications in 40 hours.
Maine has been able to build up a library of software components to incorporate into new applications, speeding up the development process.
"We could easily get 10% efficiency in operations"
Jim Smith, state of Maine
"It is not just a case of we build one licensing system, then we build another. We are building generic things like logons, that might be used in licensing or in another application," said Smith.
Maine has taken its best business analysts and trained them up as Pega business analysts, giving them the skills to update and change BPM applications.
Businesses users can now update licences or add new licences to the system without having to call in the IT department, for example, when there is a change in legislation, Smith revealed.
Efficient operations create savings
Smith said Maine is pursuing a double strategy of simplifying its IT systems from the top down while also working on quick projects initiated by its business partners.
"We think we could easily get 10% efficiency in operations. Where we are talking about accounts payable, we're not going to need 60 people to do it any more. Instead of checking seven different databases, someone pushes a button now," said Smith.
Staff who previously had to train for a year to work on licensing processes have been freed up to work on higher-value projects, said Smith. Instead, state agencies can call in unskilled temps when they need them for data entry.
The state's administration is deploying 20 people on agile projects based around Pega in its 500-strong IT department, but this will ramp up to more than 50 over the next two quarters.
Some 80% of the organisation's staff work on legacy IT, but Smith expects the ratio to reverse over time, so that 80% of IT staff will be developing new projects.
"We have 12 applications in some form of production or development, and another 15 or 20 in the pipeline," said Averill.
BPM applications developed and planned
Applications already developed by the state of Maine include one that allows vacant positions to be advertised internally; an application to automate the process for people claiming unemployment benefits, which checks that applicants have paid enough into the state's unemployment fund to qualify; one to manage environmental surcharges when oil is transported through the state on rail or road or ship; and a prototype travel application that will allow employees to claim back travel expenses.
Work is underway on a public procurement portal that will manage bids, create contracts and approve purchases made by government.
There are a further 30 applications planned, to cover licensing and permitting; enterprise resource planning, including contracts and payables; and case management for agencies, including the Department of Labor, Department of Health, Administration, Conservation Agriculture and Marine Resources.
Cultural and skills challenges
The IT department won support from the governor's office to invest in projects to improve the running of state agencies. The biggest challenge is cultural – getting the right message out and educating people what the technology can do, Averill revealed.
"It really works best when agencies, business executives and IT staff are collaborating. When they don't, we have had some experiences that haven't been all that great, but when they do, you can do a whole lot of good stuff very quickly," he said.
In an ideal world it would have been better to have more time to develop the business process management architecture, Averill revealed.
Finding developers with skills in Pega is another challenge, often taking which can take nine to 12 months. Maine works with a range of recruitment companies to find the people it needs.
"With agile you know pretty quickly if they are up to it. I throw back to the recruiters in a day if I have to," said Smith.
Maine plans to use Pegasystems' technology to develop customer relationship management (CRM) platforms that can be used across the state's 14 government agencies.
Each agency uses its own CRM systems so it makes sense to simplify them, said Averill. Work is expected to begin in a year's time.