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Oklahoma Takes On Mass Unemployment Through New Platform

The state’s secretary of digital information says Oklahoma is prepared to handle hundreds of thousands of claims and billions of state and federal dollars through Granicus’ digital services platform.

As millions of Americans face the new reality of telework, furloughs or layoffs, and federal benefits start being released, state governments face a test of adaptability. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment in the past six weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and states are on the hook to coordinate help. But if some officials are sweating bullets or feeling overwhelmed, one of them is not Oklahoma Secretary of Digital Transformation and Administration David Ostrowe.

In the midst of unprecedented demand for government services, Ostrowe is not only confident about meeting the moment, but also optimistic about organizational improvements as a result of the state’s work with government software provider Granicus and cloud-hosted services. Ostrowe told Government Technology today that in partnership with Granicus, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) set up an online portal for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to help citizens navigate the application process, essentially in a weekend, and the results have been encouraging.

“It’s a great logic tool,” he said. “We got the guidance [on PUA applications] from the Department of Labor on a Friday, and by Sunday we had already started processing that information.” 

Ostrowe said Oklahoma started using Granicus’ govService platform in April 2019 for licensing, banking, health-care and department of labor issues; so when the federal government announced additional unemployment benefits for those affected by the pandemic, the company was a natural partner to help the state manage claims. The federal government is offering $600 a week through July to those who qualify, on top of $288 in traditional unemployment benefits offered by the state. Ostrowe said Oklahoma expects to disburse about $2.2 billion — state and federal dollars combined — through this process. Hence, he needed to quickly set up a user-friendly system that could handle so many claims and refer people to the right program, depending on what they qualify for.

With support from Granicus, Ostrowe’s in-house team accomplished this by building the PUA system at the same time they were replacing the state’s old public interface for unemployment benefits in mid-April. He said the adaptability of the platform allowed them to make tweaks on it every day since. Feedback reinforced for them why user-centered design is as important for digital government services as for any other technology.

“We brought in a PUA claimant, a hairdresser, and we had her sit down and fill out the application in front of us online,” he said. “Wherever she stumbled was our ‘a-ha’ — it made sense to us, it made sense to the programmers, it didn’t make sense to the person filling it out — so we were able to make changes on the fly, which is why we really like the platform … Granicus will probably solve 95 percent of all of our state issues involving transactions instantly, with very little money and technical lift on our side. Although we’re always going to have that extra 5 percent that’s going to involve manual or human interaction.”

Another benefit of making government services easily accessible online like this, and having them linked through an interoperable platform, is data-driven insights. Ostrowe said Oklahoma has seen a “tremendous spike” in Web traffic: Where the OESC used to handle between 1,500 and 2,500 claims a week for traditional unemployment, it has been processing close to 60,000 a week recently, totaling more than 400,000 claims since the pandemic started, some of which came through the old system and some through the new one. In addition to that, he said the state was expecting about 100,000 claims through the PUA portal, although it has only racked up about 18,000 so far.

Ostrowe said that many user IDs, applications and other data, filtered through Granicus’ platform, yielded new information about fraud, redundancies and other issues.

“We stood a team up last April, mostly focused on online licensing, so we were able to shift that same group to the OESC issues that we discovered. I can tell you, the amount of data that we would get out of the Granicus platform has opened our eyes to all kinds of other problems,” he said. “We’re seeing suspicious transactions, we’re seeing multiple addresses — the Granicus platform, we’ll expand upon that to other agencies and other services as we move forward.”

What “moving forward” entails remains to be seen, but for Ostrowe, there are hints in what his team just accomplished: standing up a digital portal to handle millions of unemployment claims. The fact that that’s not only possible, but expected of state government in 2020, leads him to believe that digital services and inter-agency communication aren’t going out of style anytime soon.

“We’re going to come out of this stronger than we went into this thing. We’ll be prepared, not only on the unemployment side, but on the health department side, PPE supplies,” he said. “I communicate with my fellow cabinet secretaries multiple times per day. … We are all interacting non-stop, all day long, and moving resources of the state to assist each other. We want to be a top-10 state.”

The lesson for Granicus? Perhaps that some of its acquisitions have been money well spent. Originally a citizen-engagement platform, Granicus has branched into new markets in recent years by buying smaller companies and using their technology to build new solutions that are interoperable with its other ones. For instance, Granicus acquired the government website builder Vision Internet in February 2018, and the London-based Firmstep in April 2019 for digital services software that informed govService, which it launched last October.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.