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Virginia Initiative Provides Digital Occupational Licenses

The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation has launched a vendor solution supplied by Merit to allow professionally licensed residents to access credentials via a desktop, mobile webpage or app.

A Virginian contractor pulls up to a worksite, but has left their certification at home — with the debut of a new pilot program, they’re now able to pull up their qualifications on their cellphone.

The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) partnered with Merit to provide a platform for easy access to credentials for roughly 225,000 individual license holders in the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the launch of the service last week in a press release. DPOR entered a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on April 25 for Merit to display its product for the first time in the public sector, which affords licensed professionals desktop and mobile access to their certifications. Merit offers both free and premium options for agencies to deploy. The agency will use the core functions, at no cost, which includes sending, receiving, and verifying merits, according to the company.

Mary Broz-Vaughan, director of DPOR, said the collaboration allows her department to modernize a component of service while being fiscally responsible. Broz-Vaughan said a change in budget language introduced by the Legislature during the 2019 session cleared the path for an agreement between her agency and the service provider.

“The system we’re working with is rather difficult and outdated," she said. “What [Merit is] doing right now is they’re working with our publicly available data. It’s what we have out there and available on our website, now, in the form of our license lookup feature. [Merit] is able to quickly deliver it in a much more user friendly and digestible format.”

The legacy licensing system is also highly customized to meet the statutes and regulations for more than 50 different certification types in the state, she said. A modernization effort is in the early stages of development and will likely take several years before full consolidation is achieved. She said a legislative audit published in 2018 punctuated the department’s need to replace its IT infrastructure.

“In many states, regulatory boards are their own independent agencies,” Broz-Vaughan said. “Creating a licensing system for one is easy enough and there [are] many benefits to come from being a centralized umbrella agency of many boards. The challenge that comes with that is having a licensing system that is going to work with all of them. That’s what we now are going to tackle.”

Merit co-founder and Chief Operations Officer Jacob Orrin said his company built the platform with the capability of aggregating data from various legacy systems and then translating it into a standardized delivery mechanism. Merit has previously implemented its vendor solution in the private sector, he said.

“Going in we weren’t sure how it was going to go working with the team in Virginia,” Orrin told Government Technology. “That said, I was so impressed with the technical prowess of their team. We didn’t run into any real roadblocks in the initial implementation and just based on our experience so far I can’t anticipate us running into roadblocks in the future.”

Licensed Virginians will receive an invitation to create an account with Merit at the email address on file with DPOR, and the username will be the same email and they will be prompted to create a password. After logging in, a person will be able to view credentials, called “my merits,” associated with them. To have immediate access to a certification, the holder must confirm its authenticity and opt in to viewing it online via a desktop, mobile webpage or in the app, available on Android and iOS.

“It can be used for everything from state licensing to driver’s licenses to awards and accolades to training courses and certificates,” Orrin said. “We leverage some pretty robust security and tooling to ensure that any form of achievement can [be] captured in Merit and distributed to individuals.”

The Virginia Legislature also authorized DPOR to view the individual budgets of the 18 licensing boards as one collective sum, which will allow the agency to set aside funding for IT modernization, Broz-Vaughan said. DPOR is not supported by allocations from the General Fund, but instead relies on the licensing fees, which are included in the cost for a state-sanctioned certification, she said.

“We’ll continue to issue our hardcopy, paper licenses and [Merit] doesn’t replace any of that. It’s an option and it’s an additional service,” Broz-Vaughan said. “It does [work] in this day and age, especially for our licensees who are used to having a smartphone at their disposal and using it in lieu of an old pocket card for showing their license on demand and meeting that requirement, being able to have that digital license at their disposal.”

She said as the agency moves toward a vendor solution to its legacy systems, she and her team will review the lessons learned from the first licensing iteration and speak with front-line staff about what they’d like to see in a more efficient and user-friendly interface.

“We ended up with a system, that quite frankly, frustrates our staff as much as anyone else,” Broz-Vaughan said. “Our licensing specialists have to go through so many screens and it’s extraordinarily frustrating. … Where we can partner with the private sector and make use of where they, and really only they, can do things better, quicker and faster, let’s do that.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.