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User Experience at the Core of Major IT Modernization

In our look at upgrades to legacy systems in state government, no matter where agencies are on the journey, customer experience is playing a big role in the way new platforms are designed.

The historic levels of federal support aimed at state and local government over the past few years has enabled something of a golden age for technology modernization. It was much needed. But the size and complexity of the needs really can’t be overstated.

This backdrop prompted our far-reaching look this month at how states are doing upgrading the technology that supports core programs. For each of the six big systems we focused on — DMV, tax and revenue, MMIS, unemployment, ERP and HCM — our reporters checked in with three states in different parts of the country.

Without exception, officials told us that they had either recently modernized, were in some stage of an upgrade right now, or were finalizing plans and securing funding. And the upgrades are never a simple one-for-one. Rather, they are a chance to condense many disparate systems into one, migrate to a more future-ready, often cloud-based platform and introduce new features that add value for users, both external and internal. In other words, new systems will not just be faster, they’ll be better.

The pandemic exposed structural deficiencies with state unemployment systems that were simply not built to scale up quickly enough to meet stiff increases in the number of applicants, compounded by major programmatic changes to eligibility requirements. Many of these systems are decades old and use programming languages that are harder and harder to hire for. New Jersey, for one, has simplified its unemployment application, reducing the time it takes to complete it by more than 45 minutes. Other claimant communications have also been retooled with clarity for the applicant at the forefront.

Adding layers of difficulty to the modernization process for New Jersey and other states, however, is the dizzying array of federal unemployment rules.

“NJDOL [New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development] will continue to call for federal action to reform the underlying unemployment laws and regulations that bog down so many New Jersey workers when assistance is most needed,” a spokesperson relayed to Government Technology.

Similarly, nearly every person of driving age must interact with their state’s department of motor vehicles. Oregon’s recent upgrade retired almost 100 older systems, cut paperwork, introduced electronic signatures and otherwise streamlined routine processes including license renewals and registration payments.

“The adoption rate by customers of the new online options is encouraging and provides a direction for future enhancements,” said Oregon Department of Transportation’s Innovation and Planning Manager Ben Kahn. “Oregon DMV is now a place of innovation and continuous process improvement.”

A focus on user experience lies at the heart of much of this modernization work, as it should. It is possible to design IT systems, even in government, with a focus on meeting and exceeding customer expectations, and it’s refreshing to see these values manifest in so much of the core work of government.

GT Associate Editor Ben Miller pitched a column for this issue addressing the bad rap government often gets due to perceptions about large-scale inefficiency. But that may be changing due to a growing appreciation for the importance of user experience, especially in big public-facing tech projects.

Here’s hoping the current wave of big systems modernization demonstrates that this lesson is not only broadly understood but also broadly applied.
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.