little bit," Coulson said. "It's a challenge to have a final product that will appeal to a wide variety of applicants and administrators as well."

Despite its challenges, the system is already well used. Sekhar said one key to success has been DPW's willingness to accept and respond to user feedback.

"We get a lot of feedback online, and we utilize it to continue to tune and hone the application," he said. "When you develop a public application, it's sometimes difficult to know whether it's working well. We constantly reach out to advocates and local agencies to solicit their input and feedback."

Beyond the people challenge, there were technical challenges. The new system had to integrate with legacy systems, as well as with systems that share architecture.

"When you have multiple applications integrated in a system like COMPASS, it's hard to know where to start when dealing with a problem that needs to be diagnosed," Sekhar said. "We worked through a lot of learning curves trying to understand where to start so we weren't wasting a lot of people's time.

"As part of the governance structure, the COMPASS team set up enterprise standards for integration," Sekhar continued. "We determined that when we integrate with legacy systems, we have to integrate with a Unisys system. Therefore, we had to use some native Unisys middleware tools. The office of information systems within DPW was extremely helpful in setting that infrastructure."

DPW is integrating systems that share architecture directly using XML, point-to-point connections or direct database accessing. To deal with systems outside DPW, they use either FTP or point-to-point connections.

Worth its Weight

The commonwealth estimates the initial setup of the COMPASS application cost approximately $1.5 million. Adding the screening component and additional applications cost roughly another $3 million, along with a couple hundred thousand dollars in state staff expenses and $500,000 in hardware. Administrative cost savings were not an objective of this initiative and have not been measured. Yet DPW views COMPASS as extremely rewarding.

Since May 2002, the department has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of applications submitted on COMPASS. Coulson said much of that is due to applicants who work and were unable to apply for benefits during regular business hours.

"With the regulations that require welfare recipients to work a certain amount of hours, we felt a need to expand the number of hours our services were available," he said. "That wasn't easy, because we needed the evening hours to run batch processes on the mainframe. We can't have our client information system up and available to caseworkers during that time. Also, with unions, there was reluctance for people to work evening hours. COMPASS solves both problems."

Both Sekhar and Coulson want other states to know this type of application is possible, and they can implement one without reinventing the wheel. In fact, West Virginia is already adopting the COMPASS system, which it plans to rename West Virginia InRoads.

Eventually, Sekhar sees COMPASS turning into a public portal where constituents can renew applications, change addresses and see the status of applications online.

"As we add programs, as people become aware of COMPASS, and as they become more comfortable using the Internet and PCs, I think this will be even more of a success story," Coulson added. "I don't see an end to the possibilities. A lot will depend on the budget, so we may not be able to move as quickly as we want to. But until we get every social service program in Pennsylvania on there, we won't be satisfied that it's finished."

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer