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Tennessee Pops Lid on New Alcohol Licensing Platform

The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission has signed a deal with Accela to digitize and automate the license renewal process state wide.

Tennessee’s whiskey roots run deep. Craft distilleries pocket themselves from county to county. Legislative fights have erupted over state recipe rights. And the world over, the reputations of Jack Daniels and George Dickel are as tied to Tennessee as Nashville is to country songs.

Yet this epicurean love for whiskey and other adult beverages has reached a choking point that state regulators can’t ignore. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) is bogged down in liquor licensing. It processes more than 130,000 transactions — from establishment licenses to server permits — each year. And while turnaround is still relatively quick, at about three weeks per transaction, the pace can be daunting.

“We do everything by paper pretty much. All of our [license] applications are done on paper, all our permits are paper, we have large amounts of big paper files, and now it’s just so cumbersome we’re drowning,” said Cornelia Gibson, a project manager at TABC.

And with a recent turnabout in legislation, this congestion is likely to increase. In 2014, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam officially approved grocery stores for wine sales by 2016, and similar bills were passed permitting beer sales in city ballparks and parks. With such new avenues on tap, TABC IT Director Doug Duncan said they had to unearth alternative methods, and called on the govtech platform Accela for help.

“Accela seemed to meet those needs, and we’re hopefully going to save us some time, energy and effort with a system that’s going to streamline us,” Duncan said.

What the streamlining equates to is a completely digitized system. Applicant license requests, renewals, status updates and delivery are all online. Further features will equip inspectors with tablets for field reviews, and a new GIS function will link license and enforcement data to addresses and neighborhoods. Duncan estimates the system upgrade will take roughly nine months to complete.

Karin Vertefeuille, Connecticut’s former director of licensing and Accela director of business development, said legislation is a common catalyst when it comes to innovation in licensing. Considering the the constant changeability, iterations and updates, paper licensing systems, she said, aren’t always as nimble when it comes to process pivots.

“In Tennessee, grocery stores selling wine was their driver to look at automation for the increased customers, workload and need for mobile inspections,” Vertefeuille said. “As states are dealing with larger clients, there is a greater expectation for online services, while agencies need to be able to manage more information related to overall licensing and enforcement.”

As one might expect, although alcohol licensing automation is prevalent everywhere, populous states — or states that encompass large cities and industry — are the most common adopters, Vertefeuille said. This applies no matter where legislation leans. For example, some states are more restrictive on liquor sales, while others are less so. Accela’s platform is marketed as a way to manage both types, with tech opening the distribution tap or closing it via automation of enforcement tasks.

When the platform officially goes live on July 1, 2016 — a date that adds some time for fine tuning — other possible benefits may amount to dollars and cents. Since the TABC’s $6 million budget is mostly driven by license fee revenue, cash flows could see a boost. However, Gibson said the main goal will still be efficiency and a better customer experience.

“We’re hoping to provide our customers here with what they have been requesting for a long time,” Gibson said. “We just want to make this easier.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.