In the wake of the pandemic, states administering unemployment insurance (UI) faced a rapid and overwhelming workload due to the wave of customers seeking UI benefits. While the pandemic served as a stress test for agencies to meet demand, it also put a spotlight on their technology systems and identified significant weaknesses. States recognized these weak points and since that time – and with increased funding available from Congress – have put considerable effort into system modernization and updating their technology stacks to increase capacity and improve security and integrity of this critical safety net program.
Unfortunately, even with this investment in technology, states have only seen modest improvements in operational and staff capacity and the ability to handle their workload. So, why is new technology falling short of its promise to provide the capacity needed to meet increased demand?
Despite their best intentions to address the capacity challenges with new technology, agencies often skip one critical and key capacity-building step: first, rethinking the work that technology ultimately supports.
Rethinking the work to build capacity is achieved through business process redesign (BPR), which involves critically examining all existing systems, processes, and workflows. Quite simply, rather than technology dictating how work gets done, BPR allows agencies to determine the best processes to perform the work needed to carry out its mission and then adopt a technology solution to automate those processes.
By identifying the ideal business model and streamlining business processes in advance of investing in a new technology solution, agencies will ensure that they select the best solution, that it supports the ideal processes that allow agencies to deliver benefits to customers in the most timely and efficient way possible, and that it will maximize its technology investment.
To make the most of the BPR effort, states need to recognize that it requires a significant investment of time, leadership, and resources. This may involve reallocating the best resources from the current process to ensure successful implementation. Additionally, state administrators must approach BPR with a radical mindset, challenging existing assumptions and traditional ways of operation to design processes that best serve customers. By starting with a comprehensive assessment, agencies can approach modernization with a clear understanding of their specific needs and challenges.
It is also important for agencies to recognize that discovering operational capacity gains in UI agencies often entails a series of small actions rather than a single large solution. For instance, one example we can directly cite is the work done with a state’s Appeals unit. At first the unit had the mindset of appeal hearings only being held at fixed scheduled times; throughout our BPR process we introduced the concept of block scheduling (your hearing will occur between 8:30am and 11:30am). This change meant referees spent less time between hearings waiting for the next scheduled hearing, and could immediately move onto the next one, eliminating wait time for the referees and unlocking additional capacity
There is no doubt that the system modernization work that agencies have undertaken is admirable and needed. While in an ideal world it is best for agencies to first complete a comprehensive BPR effort to regain operational and staff capacity before embarking on and selecting a new technology solution, it is never too late to rethink how work gets done and consider business process redesign. For agencies that have already started or completed a modernization effort, there is an opportunity to build capacity by adjusting processes to best utilize existing technology and overcome any technology-imposed limitations on how workers do their work.