Texas' decision to consolidate 12 health and human services agencies into just five means dealing with a hodgepodge of equipment.
Maintaining technological relevance is a difficult battle for agency administrators. Budget constraints, layers of bureaucracy and the revolving door of elected officials all get in the way of keeping technology current.
Much of government's IT infrastructure is built on technology designed 20, 30, even 40 years ago -- a time when computers had just been invented. Decades of scrambling to keep up have resulted in a highly complex, internal infrastructure composed of diverse pieces of hardware and dissimilar software programs -- an infrastructure of only marginal reliability.
This is enough of a problem to cause headaches for any agency CIO, but a massive consolidation effort in Texas left one CIO in the unenviable position of trying to determine how to unify disparate hardware and software from 12 agencies.
In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed HB 2292, a sweeping piece of legislation that called for consolidating the state's 12 existing health and human services agencies into an entirely new system of five departments, one of which is the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) that oversees the other four. The rationale was that after the dust settled, the newly created HHSC would be in a better position to employ 21st-century technology to generate massive savings for the state, while vastly improving how the state serves constituents.
In terms of savings, estimates are that by 2008, Texas will have saved nearly $400 million on eligibility programs and nearly $650 million by creating new, high-tech call centers.
Gary Gumbert, CIO of the HHSC, said the effort has been significant.
"The consolidation process entails everything," he said. "Not only moving the agencies, but moving the resources and individuals into the five new departments. We moved people, computers, everything."
Moving thousands of people and many, many pieces of equipment -- while keeping daily functions running smoothly -- is an enormous task.
"One of the biggest issues we had was a messaging collaboration with the different agencies," Gumbert recalled. "That was a huge endeavor -- to keep our e-mail system up. Our e-mail had multiple systems. But rather than coming in and saying agencies had to do it a certain way, we went to the Department of Information Resources [DIR] and worked with them on messaging collaboration. We are playing a role in helping get a messaging-collaboration RFP off the ground. Rather than investing in services that would only be used by HHSC, we felt it was important to leverage what we have with the entire state."
The HHSC is looking to standardize everything that can be standardized. After the messaging systems, Gumbert said, the HHSC plans to move to a standardized version of PeopleSoft ERP. In addition, some more work with the DIR allowed the HHSC to use a single wide area network with other state agencies, dramatically lowering costs because everyone shares the expense.
Assembling the Pieces
Gumbert said the HHSC faced several technical challenges in getting components from the different agencies to work together.
"Consolidation and integration is an ongoing program," he said. "Our overall strategy is implementation of a service-oriented architecture [SOA] with a utility computing environment infrastructure that will scale to support migrated and new applications. We are tackling enterprise applications residing on a mainframe environment first, along with pointing new development to the SOA."
As far as deciding what hardware and software will stay or go, he said, the HHSC will consider factors such as age or life cycle, funding availability and readiness of the applications to move into the SOA.
The centerpiece of the overall consolidation effort is the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System (TIERS). With a price tag around $300 million, TIERS is not exactly cheap, but it is projected to cost millions less than similar systems implemented by other large states.
The purpose of TIERS is to replace and improve the way Texans apply for more than 50 assistive programs -- including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, children's health insurance, Medicaid and food stamps. TIERS will rely heavily on new call centers with an extensive database being created under the overall health and human services consolidation effort. This new system will allow citizens to apply for benefits via telephone, Internet, fax or in person. TIERS will also link to the Social Security Administration via a secure Internet connection.
The end goal is to make applying for benefits simpler and more secure, while reducing errors and eliminating duplication of effort so that constituents will need to contact the state less often. TIERS also will change the way caseworkers do their jobs -- instead of fighting with dozens of different application processes and databases, caseworkers will access a standardized system that provides immediate data feedback in the field or the office.
As the consolidation project continues, Gumbert reflected on what's already been accomplished and what's waiting in the wings.
"Things that were taking us six months in the past are now taking us weeks to produce," he said. "We're already seeing significant improvements in applications. We've laid the framework we can build upon, and we've done it with dollars well spent. Because of the framework we've laid, we can now start moving the older systems. What's actually gone on behind the scenes is significant, and I don't think people really have an appreciation."