Last year, when the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices released a study of jurisdictions maximizing Internet technology in public assistance programs, Pennsylvania was one of the top five highlighted states.
The commonwealth, which originally set out to build a simple online application for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), ended up with a dynamic system that generated attention -- it was well on its way to becoming the single access point for all state social service programs.
In the Beginning
In 1999, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) teamed with the Insurance Department to investigate an online application system for Medicaid and CHIP. Though CHIP and Medicaid are distinctly different programs, personnel within the DPW realized the applications contained several common elements. DPW hired Deloitte Consulting to create an online system suitable for both programs, and it was implemented in just 10 months.
Response to the new system was extremely favorable, Pennsylvania officials said. Between January 2002 and May 2002, 718 applications were submitted online. Applicants who can't get to the office during normal business hours can apply for benefits online. Furthermore, constituents have up to 30 days to complete the application, and can log in and out of the system as they please.
When DPW officials witnessed the overwhelming response to the new system, they began devising its expansion and created the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Application for Social Services (COMPASS). The goal of COMPASS is to serve as a single access point for all the commonwealth's social service programs by enabling constituents to apply anytime from any location with Internet access.
"COMPASS will eventually be the online application for all social services programs in Pennsylvania, regardless of what agency a program resides in," said Michael Coulson, director of Program Support at DPW. "Ultimately, COMPASS will provide online applications for health insurance, food stamps, cash assistance, day care, the low income energy assistance program, work supports, and mental health and mental retardation services."
Making It Work
Consolidating applications was an initial challenge Pennsylvania faced in developing COMPASS. With separate applications for each individual support program, getting one online application to cover several programs was tricky.
"One of the first things we did was look at the information that has to be collected for each program," said Sundhar Sekhar, COMPASS project manager. "At first, we'd be faced with adding more than 50 additional questions for a single program. But as we continued, we found the number of questions we had to add went down because so many of the programs asked common questions."
Additionally, DPW discovered many constituents just wanted to know if they were potentially eligible for aid. Rather than requiring them to spend 20 to 30 minutes filling out an application, they added a screening component. Today, COMPASS performs online screening for several assistance programs and tells users the approximate dollar amount they'll potentially receive for food stamps.
"I don't believe there's any other Web site that does that for you," Sekhar said.
Pennsylvania also faced more substantial obstacles, the biggest challenge of which was not technology, but people, DPW's Coulson said.
"Because there were so many components you had to bring together, getting the right people in the same room to make sure everyone's doing what they're supposed to be doing was extremely challenging," he said.
The commonwealth tackled this obstacle head-on, setting up a governance structure that included a steering committee and stakeholders from all different components of the operation. They then solicited stakeholders' input on what was needed.
"As we add more programs administered by different types of people to different types of recipients, there's always the desire by the new program coming on to try and tweak the look and feel of our application a 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."