2017 Best of Texas Awards Spotlight Tech-Driven Innovation in Government

With new technologies and skill sets within their reach, state and local government agencies are seizing the opportunities before them. Texas is no exception.

It’s a fairly safe bet in this day and age that a large state will play host to new and innovative projects and interactions as a point of normal business. Where some of these project focus on improving the services the state provides to its citizens, others are more internally focused, but no less important. 

In the nation’s second largest state, the Center for Digital Government* Best of Texas awards is an opportunity to showcase the wide variety of transformational projects being tackled at the state and local levels, and recognize the public servants that make them possible.

“Government leaders in Texas are leveraging technology to make government services more accessible and easier to use for the Texas residents that want and need them,” said Todd Sander, executive director for the Center for Digital Government. “Making government services easier to access and use helps improve residents’ lives and creates efficiencies and cost savings for the agencies involved. Congratulations to this year’s Best of Texas Award winners!”

For the Texas Education Agency (TEA), transformation took the shape of a suite of statewide teacher credentialing tools that allow public educators to pursue their certifications online. But perhaps more impressive than the technology behind the systems is the people who keep it all running.

This year, Karen Lewis, an 18-year veteran of the education agency and ITS project manager, received the Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management award for her integral role in keeping essential state systems operational for the roughly 1 million public school teachers in the state.

As Lewis told Government Technology, the suite of approximately six applications ultimately allows educators to file certification requests online, where they can then be vetted by the TEA team. The multi-layered process includes fingerprinting and coordination between the more than 200 prep programs in the state — a process she acknowledges people actively depend on for their livelihoods.

As far as her colleagues are concerned, Lewis' cool head and ability to lead regardless of barriers to success make her an integral part of the TEA team.

“I think project management in general, it’s something new every day. Yes, you can be organized, you can communicate, you can have a plan, but you never know what is going to happen and what is going to be needed,” Lewis said. “I think it keeps it exciting and you don’t get bored.” 

El Paso County is taking the award for Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs with its E-Bond application, which allows bonding agents and detention facilities to electronically process bail bonds. The process begins with the retrieval of booking and charge information, and terminates with the release of the bonded individual from the county detention facility. The streamlined process reduces the need for agents to travel to facilities and presents a more equitable bonding environment for the incarcerated individuals, all while eliminating the need for more than 40,000 printed documents each year.

Also winning in the category of Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs is the Harris County Law Enforcement Network Search, a tool that enables law enforcement agencies to quickly search for data across platforms and data sources. Authorities can also use the tool to search non-law enforcement information, such as tax records, to more quickly locate persons of interest. In total, the tool improves the information and actionable intelligence available to county authorities.

The third winner in the same category was Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), an agency tasked with overseeing the state’s unemployment insurance. The TWC’s Treasury Offset Program helps the state agency and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to intercept funds that were either overpaid or paid as a result of fraud. The state agency partnered with the IRS to develop the program, and has so far received approximately $23 million in IRS intercepts.

In the category of Best Application Serving the Public, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts was lauded for its overhaul of its public-facing website. As the state’s primary financial agency, the website serves as a valuable resource to the taxpaying public. 

The process of revamping the old website was quite a heavy lift, according to Media Relations Manager Cory Chandler, who said agency staff had to contend with more than 400,000 files and more than 100 applications to make the changes possible. 

“We initially launched our first bulletin board service in 1992, then launched our official window on state government in 1994. Since that time we had done some redesigns, but really hadn’t gone in to the backend architecture very much,” he explained. “Over time, it had grown to be more than 400,000 files, it was a lot of quantity that was impacting searchability. People were having trouble finding documents and some of the content was 508-compliant.”

What’s more, despite more and more people relying on mobile devices for daily Internet use, the old website was largely inaccessible to mobile devices. The new version, however, responds quickly and scales to mobile users.

The comptroller’s site also features enhanced search capabilities and centralizes several program-specific websites that had developed through the years, Chandler said.

“When our Comptroller Glenn Hegar came in in 2015, he made it a priority to go through and overhaul the website. He viewed that as something we needed to do from a customer service standpoint,” he said, adding that the end result is one that has garnered substantial public support, but is ultimately being treated as a “living” document that will continue to be adjusted as internal and public input comes in.

The TWC also received a Best Application Serving the Public award for its new Career Check website, which offers information on more than 1,100 job openings, project openings and pay information in the region. Through the portal’s career exploration tool, job seekers can learn about new career paths while opening a way for students to amend their graduation plans free of charge.

In the category of Best IT Collaboration Among Organizations, two groups were named for their exceptional cross-organization partnerships. The first collaboration was between the Department of Information Resources (DIR) and the Texas Veterans Commission, where the two organizations cooperated to launch a new, responsive website to replace the outdated veteran-focused website. The portal provides resources for veterans in crisis, as well as connecting them with other valuable resources.

The second winner in this category was the partnership between the Dallas, Tarrant and Travis County prosecutor, defense attorney and local law enforcement and their entry into a shared services agreement to develop a Web-based case management system. With the help of the nonprofit Conference of Urban Counties, the partners launched the application and replaced the existing time- and labor-intensive process. In the midst of this overhaul effort, Armstrong and Potter counties also joined the collaboration.

While you may not hear the word "zoo" and immediately see opportunities for technology, the El Paso Zoo launched a unique webcam program to share its facility with the outside world. As Project Manager Erica Gastelum explained, what started as project to pipe in some of the zoo exhibits to hospitalized children became a community-wide phenomenon once it opened to the general public.

After identifying the most popular exhibits, the project team launched a two-exhibit webcam project that has since expanded to include several other exhibits. 

Though funding for the program is limited, officials have considered expanding it to include even more of the zoo’s attractions online.

The project ultimately makes the zoo available to families who may not be able to afford a trip, or are unable to make it for another reason, Gastelum said. The zoo feed is also becoming an educational resource and field trip alternative for school children.

"Now that we have the technology there, the zoo is going to start working with the school districts in El Paso to bring those feeds to the classroom. That is mainly because of funding; a lot of the school districts have cut back on their funding specifically for field trips to the zoo,” she said. “Now with the technology out there, the zoo is going to start partnering up with the districts to provide educational material.”

In the same category, the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority garnered recognition for its new bus network, which launched in 2015. The transit authority moved away from more traditional means of communicating with mobile-enabled riders and began to use “social media customer care” through a custom-built, in-house solution. In 2016, the program expanded even more with the hiring of full-time staff to manage real-time service alerts and interact with the public through social media. The team is able to respond to 90 percent of the public queries within 15 minutes.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.
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