December 20, 2011 By Brian Heaton
Whoever wrote the Chinese proverb, “The journey is the reward,” clearly wasn’t anticipating Texas’ efforts to replace its 30-year-old legacy benefits processing system.
It has taken more than eight years to bring the new Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System (TIERS) online in every region of the state. While its users ultimately may find it more efficient than its predecessor — the 1970s-era System of Application, Verification, Eligibility, Referral and Reporting (SAVERR) — it’s likely that the personnel involved in the transition are thankful the project’s finish line is now firmly in sight.
The switch to TIERS had an array of problems from the start. Although the project began in June 2003 as a pilot in both Travis and Hays counties, and the system was implemented in Williamson County in 2006, the process dragged on through the end of the decade.
Different systems integrators tried pushing the TIERS implementation through — Texas first went with Deloitte, then switched to Accenture only to return to Deloitte — but the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s (HHSC) attempt to modernize its eligibility system seemed destined for a colossal failure.
According to Texas officials, the back-and-forth dance between Accenture and Deloitte led to some technical issues with the code embedded in TIERS. The application encountered networking issues that slowed processing and, at times, pages on which users were working would suddenly go blank.
Combined with workers being unfamiliar with TIERS and insufficiently trained, it’s no surprise that a November 2007 state audit called TIERS “cumbersome to use.”
The inevitable slowdown of work led to backlogged eligibility cases and snowballed into a stereotypical troubled government project.
These days, however, the outlook is brighter, thanks largely to help imported from Michigan. Stanley Stewart, who had guided the Wolverine State through a similar eligibility system implementation, was hired in early 2010 as a consultant by Tom Suehs, executive commissioner of the HHSC.
Stewart was made the HHSC’s deputy chief of staff for Eligibility Integration and put in charge of the entire TIERS rollout. Sixteen months later, TIERS was fully online and functioning in every region of Texas.
While it would be inaccurate to label Stewart the project’s sole savior, his appointment and direction of the TIERS rollout was something both Suehs and Stewart felt was critical in turning around the system implementation process.
Suehs said that Michigan faced problems similar to those in Texas, just on a smaller scale. So instead of reinventing the wheel, he handed Stewart control of the TIERS project.
The move may have been seen as risky to some, given that the two had never known or worked with each other. But Suehs was desperate for improvement, and he was impressed enough by Stewart’s project management approach to roll the dice. “It became obvious that he had the people skills,” Suehs explained, “and that’s part of what was missing here.”
When Suehs became HHSC commissioner in 2009, he immediately began fielding complaints from existing TIERS users, as well as from employees transitioning from the old SAVERR application.
After speaking with front-line workers, Suehs concluded that the TIERS technology was “probably OK,” but the relationship between users and IT personnel leading the migration needed serious improvement. Users were telling software designers what they needed, but their feedback didn’t seem to make a difference.
“Somehow the communication between the front-line worker and our technology staff had broken,” Suehs said. “It also became clear that we weren’t training the staff in a sufficient way to accept the technology transition. So I boiled down our issues to communication, training and listening.”
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