Recent reforms to the federal public workforce assistance program have prompted officials in one Southern state to turn to partners from higher education to redesign how they offer and control online services, and improve how they help business thrive and residents find and keep their jobs.

The 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), considered the first legislative reform of the nation’s federal workforce system in more than 15 years, galvanized officials in Mississippi. The state is believed to be the first to submit its own WIOA plan and have it approved.

A key participant in enabling that plan is the Mississippi State University National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center (NSPARC), founded in 1998, which has more than 100 staffers ranging from data scientists to software architects to security experts.

Prior to modernization, state employment resources were in a not unusual position for even high-level agencies: they contained a variety of IT systems, some of them legacy and all in a variety of conditions and ages. Connecting them more efficiently under guidance from a new WIOA was a clear choice, but how?

NSPARC had never looked under the hood of state-level workforce before. But agency officials said they wound up identifying a shared attribute they believe will more effectively link state, businesses and residents.

This vision included the aligning of “technology and data systems across one-stop partner programs” to enhance the delivery of services and improve “reporting on performance accountability measures.” This includes common client intake, data collection, case management information, performance accountability measurement, as well as better service coordination.

But NSPARC officials said they realized one commonality intersected all these areas — data — which could be used to connect information, supporting current and new activity in a way that empowered residents while giving the state better insight through improved tracking.

“Data plays a critical role in the operations of the program. We wanted to put more value into the data as an asset for organizations to facilitate inter-agency cooperation,” said Domenico Parisi, professor of demography and applied statistics and NSPARC founder and executive director.

Parisi said the project started with convening representatives of the WIOA customer agencies involved — including the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services (MDRS) — to understand each other’s mission and how that could achieve the overall WIOA mission of integration, not consolidation.

Stakeholders met over a roughly six-month period and agreed data needed to be used for real-time enhancement of case management service delivery; to improve coordination of continuous performance improvement; and in retrospect, to report on performance measures.

Letting those uses set the path, NSPARC and the agencies arrived at what they termed the Smart Start Career Pathway Model, a linked approach to the customer ensuring residents retain control over their own path through the system and are guided, not forced, toward the services they may need.

“The great thing about an electronic referral is, it’s trackable, you can tie it in, you can see when it was created, you can make sure people don’t fall through procedural cracks,” said Jonathan Barlow, associate director for architecture and development at NSPARC.

The system has been operational for about six months and its first agency partner, MDRS, has been onboarded through three of four levels — sending and exchanging records, referrals and questions to the hub; sending service information to the hub; and sending assessment records.

The goal is for MDRS, and other partners, to be fully onboarded later this summer, through the fourth level, which includes connecting in participants’ success plans.

A paper-based culture remains in place for now, Barlow said, but officials expect positive feedback once processes are migrated online — with automation requiring less human time and interaction. The new hub is already notable for the ability of its architecture to connect state-level legacy without costly and intensive upgrades, avoiding the loss of data seemingly inherent in somewhat fragmented systems.

“There’s no need to replace the systems. What we did, basically, is we modified those systems slightly to talk to the hub in the background,” Barlow said, characterizing the resulting connected documentation as “sort of a golden record for the WIOA customer” that “follows them from agency to agency.”

The system wasn’t free, Parisi said, but he characterized it as being founded on existing “contractor” relationships with partners who provided technical assistance, with additional monies coming from discretionary funds. The hub and its “fail-over” version will be maintained in state data centers, while individual agencies will continue to maintain copies of their own data.

All the hub does is facilitate “the exchange of information for a common case management,” Parisi said. But as utilization ramps up, the hope is that it will realize enterprise-level efficiencies.

“It’s augmenting the ability of staff to do a job that otherwise would require a much larger body of staff. It would be literally impossible to cross-train everybody, for everybody to understand all the policy, all the regulations around different programs,” Parisi said.