The Best of Texas awards were originally created to recognize the state’s great number of public-sector technology projects leading the industry, and 2016 is vindication of that premise. Ten winners were recognized this year, the 15th annual, for projects involving agile development, smart and transparent uses of data, and mobile applications that serve customers and slash operational costs. A ceremony hosted by the Center for Digital Government and held at the Texas Digital Government Summit in Austin on June 20 honored the winners.
“Texas technology leaders are making significant changes to improve services to citizens,” said Todd Sander, executive director of the Center for Digital Government. “It is important to recognize the people behind the scenes and showcase the ways technology innovations can improve lives and create efficiencies.”
Just 12 months since the last awards ceremony, projects like the Texas Workforce Commission’s unemployment insurance anti-fraud system, the Austin Police Department’s alert and anonymous tip app, and the Health and Human Services Commission’s benefits mobile app, showcase the gov tech industry’s maturation.
Leadership by Jessica Southwick, Tarrant County’s senior project manager, allowed greater efficiency and communication in controlling the transformation of the county’s website, which comprised the deployment of 101 websites through seven releases. She was recognized for cross-department collaboration and leading development of the portal's modern Web content management system that features improved transparency, faster content publishing turnaround, comprehensive privacy and security protections and data analytics capabilities.
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles was also awarded for its collaboration in rolling out the state’s “Two Steps, One Sticker” initiative, which affects 24 million registrants annually, and modernizing the department’s phones with a VoIP system, all contributing to a 91 percent customer satisfaction rating.
Harris County’s Bruce High was recognized for best serving an agency’s business needs through the deployment of the Attorney Voucher Processing System (ViPS), a digital modernization program that streamlines and automates attorney voucher submissions by reducing paperwork and simplifies processes.
The Lone Star College won an award for migrating paper form submission processes to a cloud-based system that integrates four departments and provides automation and tracking for HR and payroll requests for six college campuses. The system saves more than $40,000 annually and boosted customer satisfaction.
The Texas Workforce Commission was recognized for the development of a business intelligence system that uncovers unemployment insurance fraud, a system that has been expanded since its initial launch, eventually saving more than $5.4 million in fraudulent claims.
Collin County’s mobile-friendly one-stop judicial system was awarded for its ability to easily serve to customers three of the county’s most pursued data sets. The new database receives more than 1.6 million hits per month from public searches.
Tanya Acevedo, CIO of Travis County, accepted an award for the deployment of a court program that allows the public to file lawsuits, pay tickets and review court rules online. Kiosks for people who don’t own computers allow additional access to the system, which also includes a process for records management that allows judges to easily scan and organize documents.
The Bob Bullock Award Goes To …
On June 20 at the Texas Digital Government Summit, Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC’s) Ed Serna was awarded the 19th annual Bob Bullock Award for Outstanding Public Stewardship.
Serna, whose public service career for the state spans more than 30 years, serves as the commission’s deputy executive director. In this role, he manages daily operations at the TWC, and provides guidance and oversight to the employees in its many internal service departments.
“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award,” said Larry Temple, executive director of TWC and a previous recipient of the Bob Bullock Award. “Ed's wisdom and experience provide the steady hand that is so needed when everything seems to be in the deep end of the pool at the same time.”
The Austin Police Department’s mobile app was awarded for the ease and convenience it provides citizens who want to interact more closely with law enforcement. There is functionality for distributing instant alerts, submitting anonymous tips and interacting using social media.
Judges were particularly impressed by mobile app developed by the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), which tackled the challenge of a 46 percent caseload increase. Deploying a mobile app with vendor Deloitte Digital via agile development turned out to be just what customers wanted, because as of April, more than 1.5 million documents have been uploaded via phone, and the app now accounts for 75 percent of how all documents are uploaded to the department.
The department’s main constituency is low-income citizens, and low-income citizens are the fastest-growing segment of mobile phone users, explained Stephanie Muth, deputy executive commissioner of transformation, policy and performance at HHSC, and now the 18-month development period and $4.5 million investment is yielding dividends.
“The way that low-income consumers have access is through their mobile device, so it made good business sense,” Muth said when asked if there was any resistance to a project of this kind. “This is something we knew going in, but to have a very strong business case for your need is important. We knew a third of the people who walked into our offices were coming into our office just to drop off a piece of paper of some sort.”
That in 2016 anyone should be driving to a physical office and handing someone a single sheet of paper is becoming increasingly unacceptable to the public, and it’s that mentality that the department was tapping into, Muth said.
“I don’t go to the bank to deposit a check anymore. I use my mobile app,” she said. “And it’s the same concept in a government program. Why should you have to come in? And it takes staff time to process the paper and so uploading it through the mobile app is a win-win. It’s more cost effective for taxpayers and it’s more convenient.”
It’s more convenient for citizens, but it’s also less work for the state to process documents. When images are scanned by customers through the app, state workers no longer need to create the image from the physical paper, as they had in the past, and associating the image with the case is also unnecessary because the app completes that task automatically, and with most documents now coming via the app, workers are free to work on other things.
The idea was never to replicate their website, Muth said, but to isolate a few critical functions that people wanted and to make those easy to access with their phones. But simply launching a mobile app isn’t enough, she warned — a department must also carefully and continually manage the project.
“Pay close attention and be responsive to the user reviews,” Muth recommended. “People will alert you if they’re having issues or problems. That was one of the lessons we learned and we paid close attention. … We also just trended what kind of things people are saying, so that we could be responsive.”
The developers initially forgot to account for periods when the system would be unavailable, and therefore it sometimes appeared as though the app was malfunctioning when in fact the system was down. This was eventually fixed, but it’s important to think of those situations ahead of time because the public’s trust is at stake.
“You only have one chance to make a first impression, so I think that first user experience and that communication with the user is very important,’” Muth said. “If they try to use the app and we’re doing maintenance on the system and they can’t, they’re going to blame the app and they may not come back for another time.”
Using agile, or iterative, development for a project is a trend in government that has yet to catch on in many departments, but it worked well in this case, Muth said, because it allowed them to fix problems quickly, like the aforementioned "system-down" message, and the development model is now being considered for more projects throughout the state.
“After our first release, we had a second release that followed a month later,” Muth recounted. “It’s a pretty quick development and deployment process, which also allows you to address any issues that you might see happening. That worked very well, and it worked very well with mobile.”
Switching to agile development has additional considerations beyond the technical, she said, but if done diligently, agile works well.
“From the business perspective, you build everything around that whole waterfall system and so your training delivery for staff when a new release comes out, it’s built around having this big release that happens three times a year, and so when you move to agile, all your support, how you communicate to staff about the changes, how quickly you deploy your training, those sorts of things all have to change in addition to changing the way you are building the technology,” she explained. “So that’s been an interesting transition for us.”
Getting people to think differently and use new processes than what they’re used to is also a major challenge, Muth said. But when new ideas pay off, they can also lead to Best of Texas awards.
“I think it’s very important,” she said, “to look at what your business case is or what your problem is that you’re trying to solve and design it around that functionality. If you do that, people will engage and it will be successful.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.