Stewart’s turnaround methods were less about the technology and more focused on the people operating the system.

His first step was to evaluate and ultimately improve TIERS training, which was being done in a lecture format by people who didn’t know the system well. Stewart had the trainers relearn the system from the ground up, and then work actual cases brought up by employees to give them “hands-on” experience in solving various problems.

Another important change, Stewart said, was not letting employees return to the old SAVERR system once they began TIERS training. “That made a big difference, and once people started being a little more successful, other people came along,” he said, adding that new hires took readily to TIERS, while those who were successful using SAVERR “struggled a little bit,” but are doing well.

The investment in training and better onsite support reduced worker frustration and improved productivity, Stewart said. Like their Michigan counterparts, HHSC employees working with TIERS tended to spend hours trying to resolve issues themselves.

“Now if it’s more than 10 minutes and you can’t get through it — you can put a little flag outside your office and somebody will come and help you,” Stewart said.

Along with training and teamwork improvements, Suehs re-emphasized accountability from his implementation team, including weekly meetings for senior management to confront project issues. Those meetings include representatives from various offices, from the data staff to public information officials. All issues are brought to the table and, according to Suehs, the meetings don’t move forward until management reports on each office’s performance on clearing the backlog of eligibility cases.

Suehs was adamant that everyone report on their progress and have all of their issues addressed.

“I knew everybody would be busting their backsides to make sure they did things from the previous week and that they only had Monday and Tuesday to polish it up,” Suehs said. “It means that I was forcing them to be focused on a week-by-week basis of addressing our issues and addressing the problem.”

Stewart also persuaded Suehs to bring TIERS online without waiting for upgrades and tweaks to the system. “Stanley convinced me to suspend doing any major improvements in the technology. He said, ‘Let’s bring the technology online, and ... tweak it after that, but quit messing with it right now.’

“That is a major policy decision I think Stanley generated very early on as a suggestion that probably had more impact in establishing the system than anything else,” Suehs said.

Despite the recent momentum, social service advocacy groups say TIERS isn’t completely out of the woods yet.

Celia Cole, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the application process for benefits eligibility is better — but it’s still heavily paper-based and labor-intensive. “In some ways we’re trying to get a horse to pull a train,” Cole said. “They are out of sync. We have these outdated application processes, yet we have these great new electronic and automated tools for getting people onto the program.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.