With the groundwork for its online permitting portal already in place, when the Maryland Department of Commerce needed to quickly distribute funding for small businesses in the pandemic, IT stepped up to the plate.
In a sense, there was no way for local governments not to be caught off guard by COVID-19. The first few days of March saw a few dozen cases across a handful of states, and by March 27 the virus had eclipsed 100,000 cases from coast to coast. States shut their offices, in-person government services ceased at the same time unemployment claims skyrocketed, and many businesses — especially small ones — needed a hand to survive. The pandemic presented a test case for digital services and cloud technology to prove their worth, and some states such as Maryland, in the midst of maturing its online platform called Maryland OneStop, were able to stand up solutions literally overnight because they’d been laying the groundwork for years.
To distribute small-business grants and loans across the state, the Maryland Department of Information Technology (DoIT) worked with the state Department of Commerce to add new functionality to a platform they had launched in early 2018. Lance Schine, the deputy secretary of DoIT, said OneStop was envisioned as a digital services platform that multiple departments could use for various permits and licenses, giving citizens a uniform system on the front end with a framework for expansions and modifications on the back.
Schine compared it to the iPhone’s user interface, which hasn’t changed much in years, while the back end is under constant revision.
“We realized that having dozens of different systems wasn’t really efficient, so we built the Maryland OneStop platform … having a single place for people to go for hundreds of licenses, permits and certifications, with a single, universal experience. The ultimate goal is to decouple the front end from the back end, so a citizen signs in, puts in all their information in this OneStop, and it does all the work on the back end,” he said. “Our front end is responsive, so it runs in your native browser. It can run on your desktop, your tablet, your smartphone.”
From the beginning, OneStop was a work in progress that never really ended. Following the agile mentality, Schine said, the state initially came out with a minimum viable product in 2018 that served, for example, the Maryland Department of Health, but it kept adding features and enhancements that other agencies could use, adapting the platform on a case-by-case basis.
“If we build connections to a payment gateway, anybody who needs to use OneStop that requires a payment can now take advantage of that integration work that was already done,” he said. “If we build features for one department in one agency, all of a sudden, all the departments of that agency, and all the other agencies in the state, can leverage that feature.”
That approach in 2018 meant the platform was easy to adapt in 2020, and was already familiar to other departments, including to Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz, who had formerly been secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. As soon as the state decided to disburse small-business grants through the OneStop platform, Schulz’s staff provided a list of high-level requirements to Schine’s office. The list quickly went to Enovational, the app developer in Washington, D.C., that won the state’s competitive bid to set up OneStop two years before.
“Since [Enovational] was intimately involved with it … and the small business solution was basically an intake and workflow, it was a good fit, and they did it very quickly,” Schine said. “We just leveraged the current contract to add new forms onto the OneStop platform.”
Besides the technology, Schulz’s understanding of the business processes involved — knowing what information people need to collect and how to process it — was critical for a fast turnaround time.
“The speed to implement is fairly dependent on the requirements-gathering. If someone comes to us and says, ‘We need to collect information, we don’t know what we need to collect, we don’t know what the conditional forms are … and we don’t know what other databases we need to authenticate against,’ and you’re creating all that from scratch, obviously it takes more time,” Schine said. “If they come to you with a 10-page form, they’ve already been doing this for 10 years, they know the business process and they know exactly what they need to do, that’s a much faster speed to implement, setting aside the technology piece … We will re-engineer [the business process] when we go from paper to computer, but at least we know what the process requires.”
Enovational’s Chief Operating Officer Chum Chancharadeth recalled being approached at 5 p.m. March 24. By 1 a.m., there was a Maryland OneStop portal up and running to handle small-business grant applications.
“Part of the reason we were able to bring the loans and the grant application online is because the platform was already launched and developed,” Chancharadeth said. “The two years that we invested in developing the platform helped a lot.”
He approached the project with the goal of using the latest open source tools for the technology stack and hosting it in the cloud. Specifically, he used Ruby on Rails for the Web application framework, MongoDB for the database, Elasticsearch for the search engine and AWS GovCloud to host.
Schine said the fact that the state already had a shared cloud infrastructure with security controls and mechanisms in place, in the AWS GovCloud, allowed it to roll out new solutions quickly. That, combined with the OneStop platform already being part of the state’s digital infrastructure, meant the small-business grant project wasn’t starting from scratch on any major components.
From a project management perspective, Chancharadeth reiterated the importance of decoupling the public’s user experience from the workflow. He said this allowed Enovational to focus on getting the citizen-facing application up and running while taking more time with Schine’s department to finalize the approval process, and the steps involved in handling the applications.
Schine said it was a week or two before they had all the integration points complete and the application processing automated.
Chancharadeth said Maryland OneStop received about 18,000 applications for small-business grants and loans within the first three days, and 56,000 within a month. The program is now closed, but Schine and Chancharadeth were generally pleased with it.
Chancharadeth said if not for the time pressure of a pandemic and government shutdown, Enovational might have been able to spend a few weeks fleshing out the back end prior to launch instead of after. But he doesn’t think it would have made a sizable difference to the end result, because the platform was already in place.
“It was just a matter of ironing out all the business processes behind the scenes, but in that instance, we needed the application ready right away,” he said. “So we tried to meet that, and we did it under the 24-hour timeframe.”
If the project taught him a lesson, it was one he already knew: “Don’t try to do something in 24 hours,” he said with a laugh.
Schine, too, was pleasantly unsurprised by the process. He said that under more ideal circumstances, they might have done an analysis of the entire system end to end and worked out all the integration points and methodologies for collecting information from citizens prior to launch. But given the emergency at hand, he was glad they had an adaptable platform on which the front end could be modified and launched so quickly.
“There are a lot of systems across the country that have failed because the front-end system was tied to an old back-end system, and the back-end systems couldn’t handle the load,” Schine said. “What we’re doing is taking in all the information, in a secure environment, and then dealing with the back-end integration at whatever cadence that back end can handle,” he said. “So the public doesn’t sit there with the system timing out, because it’s not an older back-end system that can’t handle the volume that a lot of states have run into, because COVID affects such a high percentage of people in their state. Their systems weren’t prepared for that.”
Reflecting on nontechnical reasons the project turned around so fast, Schine mentioned a few common best practices: open communication between departments, everyone on calls at the same time, everyone on the same page.
“It was one of many emergency responses we were able to do, because we spent years preparing to make our agency able to implement things faster and more efficiently,” he said. “It paid off during COVID.”
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