Licensed to Succeed

Technology is improving how agencies approve and process professional licenses.

by / August 31, 2001
They are underfunded and understaffed. When it comes to state government, they get no respect. They are the agencies and boards that process licenses for beauticians, doctors, teachers, nurses, barbers and dozens of other professions regulated by state government.

In Florida, nearly 900,000 professionals and businesses must register, renew and pay for a variety of licenses at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation every year. Its a time-consuming task for both professional and state worker that can take weeks to produce a single license. A simple query by a caller can result in multiple phone transfers before he or she gets an answer. By anyones standards, its a bureaucracy ripe for automation and change.

And thats just whats happening as the department overhauls its entire business process and brings it into the Internet Age. Starting this fall, the first of 150 different licenses and permits will move online where licensees will be able to apply for, pay for and receive a license, as well as take advantage of a host of other services. Instead of waiting weeks for a license, they will receive them as soon as the transaction is completed, day or night. A dedicated call center will field all questions and customer relationship management software will provide aid to those who need help while online.

"Were in the business of regulating professions in the state of Florida, and we need to be more professional than anybody we regulate," said department Secretary Kim Binkley-Seyer, as she explained why the department was undertaking such a mammoth transformation. "Its a big customer-service project and were just doing what the private sector did a long time ago."

Faster Licenses, Less Paper
Florida joins a growing number of states that have decided to overhaul their entire licensing system to take advantage of a range of new technologies. The payoff can be huge in terms of customer service, if not productivity. Most professional licensing applications take weeks to complete and involve a lot of documentation. If done correctly, e-licensing not only gives professionals a faster and easier way to apply and pay for a license, but it streamlines the backend process so that paper handling can be reduced while workflow improvements enhance productivity.

In Florida, workers will also spend less time answering routine questions. All incoming calls will be directed to a dedicated call center where trained operators will handle the majority of queries. This frees up the departments limited staff to focus on priority tasks. "The system helps us to dedicate our resources to our core mission, which is improved and increased inspection and auditing compliance," said Binkley-Seyer.

Accenture is developing Floridas $16 million system, which will use BellSouths eCenter hosting and call-center services for phone queries. The e-licensing system will run on a Microsoft platform and will use Versa Management Systems LicenseEase licensing and permitting software, as well as business application software from Siebel Systems. Online payment services will enable the state to speed up collection of the $75 million in annual fees it collects for professional and business licenses.

Across the country in California, a relatively new e-licensing system for registered nurses has racked up kudos for customer service since its launch in January. One of the first transactional services to show up on the states revamped "My California" portal, the Online Professional Licensing Project has had limited exposure so far, but has registered a 95 percent approval rating among users, according to Susan Hogg, office chief for Californias eBusiness Center.

"Weve had nurses write and tell us they used to fly to Sacramento to renew their licenses and now they can do the same online from home," Hogg said.

Although those extreme cases are rare, most of the 286,000 nurses in the state will find the system extremely beneficial as word about its availability spreads. For example, nurses who are abroad, in the military or out of state had to plan well in advance when their renewal came up or face the possibility of becoming unlicensed. Now they can register online no matter where they are, get a receipt for their license at the end of the transaction and have the actual license in the mail a week later, according to Hogg.

California contracted with American Management Systems to develop the $400,000 pilot project. Told by the state to build the service as quickly as possible without changing the states legacy system, AMS partnered with System Automation Corp., a software development firm, which decided to host the application using its License2000 software rather than build an application from scratch. As a result, the licensing system was up and running in eight weeks, according to Charles Rubin, president of System Automation.

Usage Rates Climb
Maryland, which built one of the earliest e-licensing systems in the country, took a different approach. In 1998, the state partnered with IBM to put nearly 40 occupations licensed by 17 different boards online, so that professionals could apply for and renew licenses, as well as perform other functions, on the Internet.

Now operating the longest running e-licensing system for an entire state, Marylands Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has proof that people will use online applications when the job is done right. "Were fast approaching two-thirds of all [licensing] transactions taking place on the Internet," said Harry Loleas, deputy commissioner.

In fact, 80 percent of all CPAs use the system and more than 50 percent of barbers and cosmetologists -- considered the least tech-savvy groups of professionals -- are using their Web browsers and credit cards to apply and pay for licenses.

Loleas attributes the high usage rate to the decision by the department to stop sending paper renewal forms and instead mail licensees Internet instructions and a PIN number. If users still want to apply the old fashioned way, the last section of the instructions explains how they can proceed.

"We made a conscious decision to bring them on to the Internet, with some peril to their reactions," explained Loleas, adding that the rapid rise of the Internets popularity shortly after the system was launched helped boost the usage rate.

Like other state systems, the beauty of Marylands e-licensing is in the customer service. The states 175,000 professionals receive their licenses within 24 hours of the online transaction, compared to wait times of up to two months under the old, paper-based process. Internally, the system has enabled the department to gain more productivity from its existing staff. "We didnt sell this system as a way to save money," said Loleas. "We are underpopulated to begin with. Instead, we said the system would be a way to redirect labor away from processing paper and toward dealing with people and their issues."

IBM built the $2 million system in stages on its AS/400 platform using its DB2 and Net Data software. Except for some upgrading due to the growing volume of data, the system has changed little. Not surprisingly, Loleas is pleased with the systems success, but is quick to point out that it is the positive response to the system, not the volume of users, that tells him things are working well.

That should be good news to other states, including Florida, which will be rolling out e-licensing applications, one by one, for the next two years. When it is completed, Florida will have moved nearly one million professional licensees online and will have merged 78 different software systems and a multitude of different processes into one online licensing system.

"Its huge," said Secretary Binkley-Seyer. "And its very, very exciting."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor