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Crises Present Opportunities to Modernize State Government

Just a few years ago, the business processes of the Texas Department of Insurance were slow and outdated, but a response to Hurricane Harvey moved the agency forward and prepared it for COVID-19.

by / May 14, 2020

The Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) was prepared for the COVID-19 crisis, but only because another disaster helped push it toward technological change. 

When Kent Sullivan became commissioner of TDI after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, customers were having to wait on the phone for too long. 

“If you had called our call centers immediately after Hurricane Harvey, you could have waited 45 minutes or longer,” Sullivan said. “In some cases, people were waiting an hour.”

About a year ago, TDI centers were able to answer a call in 95 seconds, on average. In March of this year, the average wait was about 30 seconds. 

Since the days of dealing with the aftermath of Harvey, TDI has seen a similar boost of efficiency with license processing. In 2019, the average time for processing a license was 5.6 days. Today, TDI can process a license in a little more than 24 hours. 

How did TDI get to this point? Sullivan believes any government organization that wants to modernize must draw from best practices as it evaluates its technology backbone. 

“We would hold whatever it was we were doing up and compare it to the relevant agencies, including the private sector,” Sullivan said. “You had to take a hard look at what the cutting edge looked like and at what the very best players are doing. When you can, you need to benefit from their experience and, very candidly, copy them.”

TDI Chief of Staff Nancy Clark, who has been with the agency for 11 years, said the natural tendency of her organization was to rely on its own experiences in order to gauge its performance. This approach was flawed because it didn’t show staff what was possible. To achieve the possible, an agency must judge itself by a higher bar that is not its own, she explained, both because an agency’s experience might not be very good and because the market has likely moved well beyond a government entity’s previous benchmarks. 

When it comes to modernizing infrastructure and practices, Sullivan and Clark both acknowledged that government often finds itself in a tough spot because of budgets. When money is tight, Clark said technology is an “easy budget line item to cut.” And traditional state procurement isn't fast. Given this reality, Clark recommended maximizing existing vendors and contracts, as well as keeping an open mind.

Sullivan added that he’s been surprised by what TDI has been able to do by being willing to deploy resources and aggressively take action. 

“Just because we’re government doesn’t mean we can’t be best in class,” Clark said. 

Such a mindset led to TDI’s successful adaptation to the COVID-19 crisis. By the time COVID-19 disrupted society, TDI had already moved most of its staff to laptops. Sullivan said TDI had also prioritized telecommuting in general, mainly to give the organization a recruiting edge. 

“It was with a motive in mind,” Sullivan said. “We work with issues of government compensation. We often are not able to go toe to toe with the private sector, while at the same time we need many of the same people who have the same technical skills. We need to hire actuaries. We need to hire lawyers. We need to hire a lot of folks that are highly compensated, and in certain circumstances, they can be in high demand.” 

The emphasis on telecommuting could be more attractive to recruits for multiple reasons. Real estate in Austin is expensive, for one, and physically commuting to TDI’s office can take a long time if one lives outside the city. Clark said her one-way commute could easily surpass an hour.

The silver lining of any crisis is that it reinforces the need for an organization to continue modernizing, Clark said. TDI is still in the process of moving to the cloud, and Clark hopes to see that completed before the end of the calendar year. The agency is also moving forward with an artificial intelligence program that will significantly cut down on the time it takes to review policy forms. Clark estimated that AI and machine learning could review about 80 percent of such forms, which would allow staff to concentrate on more complicated policy-related language. 

Challenges remain, of course. Sullivan pointed out that provisions, rules, statutes and so forth can hamstring an agency’s ability to modernize. “You would be shocked to find that there is a statute out there that might say that the company needs to fax the application to XYZ,” he said. 

As such, Sullivan said it’s important to avoid mandates that can later become “self-inflicted wounds” when an organization wishes to change for the better.

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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