Getting answers about professional licensing in Florida used to be a game of chance. Odds were 3-1 no one would answer when you called the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR). Even when connected with the department, callers often discovered they dialed the wrong division. After several transfers to reach the right office, chances were slim they would receive needed information right away.
"People would ask a simple question, and employees would have to go to five different places to try to piece together the answer," said Kim Binkley-Seyer, Florida's secretary of business and professional regulation.
The department stored licensing data in 74 separate computer systems, some 20 years old, none of which linked together. This fragmentation spawned a customer-service nightmare; it was no dream for internal operations either.
If applications for certain licenses suddenly spiked, for example, the department had no idea. "When you're operating in that manner, you don't have the management tools to respond to how times are changing or how volumes might be changing," Binkley-Seyer observed.
Today, the DBPR acts as a single organization. It is backed by an enterprise-wide information system that handles all license-related transactions. This change enables the department to better manage its business and enforce its regulations. The new system saves money for the DBPR and serves licensees more efficiently with Web and phone-based services. It also helps consumers make informed decisions when hiring contractors or purchasing other licensed services.
Solutions, Not Specs
When the DBPR set out to build a new licensing system, it didn't simply offer bidders a list of specifications. "We went out looking for a solution," asking vendors to propose how to meet the needs of all department business areas, Binkley-Seyer said. There was one firm requirement: The solution must employ the LicenseEase software package from Versa Systems already in use in Florida's Department of Health. "We were doing this to lay an enterprise approach for state government," with an eye toward supporting a variety of functions on a common platform, Binkley-Seyer said.
In February 2001, the DBPR awarded a contract to Accenture in Reston, Va. The agreement included $16 million to design and build a single, statewide licensing system, and $14 million for application hosting services and system support. A benefit sharing plan linking a portion of Accenture's revenues to the savings the system yields for the state, was also included.
To ensure the new system pleased all stakeholders, the project team included all DBPR divisions in its work. "We got them involved early in the project, kept them involved throughout the design and development, and made sure their specifics were being addressed," said Steven Mankoff, Accenture's engagement partner in charge of the Florida project.
But meeting each division's business needs didn't necessarily mean preserving traditional practices, Binkley-Seyer said. "It doesn't matter where we were. Where do we need to be? What information do we really need to be capturing, and how do we really need to use that information?" she said.
Rethinking the Organization
Beyond building a new information system, Accenture worked with the DBPR to redesign the organization's business processes. Previously, each division administered its own license applications. Now a Central Intake Unit handles the vast majority, Mankoff said.
"In the past, if I wanted to apply for a real estate license as well as a construction license, I'd have to do two applications," Mankoff said. "Now, I can do both together, and I can deal with the same people."
The DBPR also revamped its inspection procedures. Instead of sending one inspector from the Division of Hotels and Restaurants to a hotel, and sending a second from the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco, it now sends one person to collect information for both divisions.
Another change was allowing licensees to conduct many transactions with the department online. Accenture created Web-based license applications that allow users to enter data into electronic forms via an interface in Florida's state portal . The data flows into the central licensing system, then into a customer relationship management (CRM) system from Siebel Systems. Credit card payments are passed to the State Treasury's information system.
Along with obtaining and renewing licenses online, business owners and professionals can use the Web site to change license status, submit a change of address, perform other account maintenance and manage continuing education obligations. Users also can renew licenses and find answers to basic questions through an interactive voice response system. In addition, they can call a customer contact center, where representatives use the CRM system to conduct common transactions and look up information. If a representative can't provide an answer, he or she transfers the caller to a designated expert in the department.
The call center has brought a revolution in customer service. "We've gone from not taking a million calls a year to asking, 'Did we answer 90 percent of our calls in five minutes, or three and a half minutes?'" Binkley-Seyer said.
Search Before You Buy
Although the project's first goal was to improve efficiency for the DBPR and its licensees, the technology has produced what Binkley-Seyer terms "a great side effect" -- a powerful consumer tool for the general public. By querying the Web site or making a phone call, citizens can find information to help them make sound purchasing decisions.
"If a person gets three bids to build a swimming pool, we tell them, 'Why don't you put all three of those names in [the system], to find out not only if they're licensed, but whether they have any past disciplinary history?" Binkley-Seyer said. "We've taken all that information the department has housed and put it in a useful form back to the public, so they can be more informed consumers."
Publicizing this information also aids license enforcement, she added. When consumers discover unlicensed activity and file complaints, the department can take quick action.
The enterprise system also paved the way for better procedures in the field. Inspectors now carry PDAs loaded with electronic forms so they can enter data on site, uploading it later to the licensing system through a synchronization cradle. Inspectors also carry tiny portable printers so they can hand reports to the business owner on the spot. Now that inspectors no longer contend with paper forms, "they're spending more time in the field inspecting," Binkley-Seyer said.
The DBPR expects to have all divisions operating on its enterprise system by February. Although only time will tell how much money the new licensing approach will save, officials at the department have high hopes. "Our original projections on savings over a nine-year period are from $70 million to $90 million," Binkley-Seyer said.
One early financial benefit comes from allowing licensees to conduct routine transactions online. For instance, the department no longer mails forms or enters data for most of the 140,000 address changes processed each year. "The self-service options are where we recognize savings immediately," said Binkley-Seyer.
The system is designed to support the department's approximately 1,600 employees, more than a million license holders and the general public, Mankoff said. It also supports more than 160 agents in the call center, more than 200 employees in off-site locations and 400 field inspectors using PDAs. If needed, it can be scaled to handle greater volumes if needed, and also to support other departments of Florida government, he said.
That need could very well arise. For example, the Customer Contact Center might someday offer information about professionals licensed through the Department of Health, Binkley-Seyer said. It could also provide the Department of Community Affairs with a public information center during hurricanes and other emergencies.
"It's designed to be an enterprise approach," she said. "Now we're looking at how we can expand on it."
Merrill Douglas is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.