|IN THIS ISSUE|
|Sunday, April, 1, 2012|
|Shared Services Solve Shared Problems|
|Tags: Shared Services|
|Posted By Al Sloane, Benefits.gov, Program Manager|
Calls for budget reductions, government efficiency, and cost-effective IT solutions have been echoing in the halls of our nation’s capital for years. Fortunately, as we settle into a new decade, these calls are being answered with the successful implementation of shared service solutions.
Though each federal agency has a unique mission, they also share many similar challenges. Before reinventing the wheel, agencies should investigate existing services that have the potential to solve both longstanding and new challenges. Based on the potential cost savings alone, agencies should be eager to pursue and reap the many other benefits of shared service solutions.
Learning How to Share
Using shared services is nothing new for the U.S. government. In fact, a few of the most successful examples of the government’s shared service initiatives began to take form in the early 2000s and provide increasing value with each passing year.
The government introduced a number of line of business (LOB) initiatives in the last decade, in areas such as human resources, financial management and security. The LOBs are charged with reducing redundancy and increasing process and system standardization through the use of shared services. For example, the human resources line of business (HR LOB) has delivered systems that automate common agency needs such as personnel actions, time and attendance, and learning management. This frees agency HR staff to focus on agency-specific, mission-centric HR work, such as customer service and strategic planning.
While the HR LOB focuses on internal government operations, another shared service has been benefiting government and citizens alike for 10 years. Benefits.gov, the official benefits website of the U.S. government, was launched in 2002 (as GovBenefits.gov) in an effort to provide citizens with easy, online access to government benefit and assistance programs. The program is a partnership of 17 Federal agencies, with the U.S. Department of Labor as the initiative’s managing partner. The public-facing Benefits.gov website serves as a portal and one-stop-shop for all citizens to easily obtain accurate information and determine eligibility, through prescreening services for more than 1,000 federally-funded benefit and assistance programs. The site is a shared service in two ways: first, all 17 agencies in the partnership are leveraging a single website as a primary means of conducting benefit program outreach; second, the site’s flexible technology can be reused by multiple agencies to satisfy a variety of needs.
Before Benefits.gov, citizens looking for government assistance had to search across the web and sort through an overwhelming amount of information, which was often redundant or conflicting. Citizens not only wasted time searching for benefits, but often wasted additional time applying for programs that they ultimately were not eligible for. As a result, government agencies wasted time and tax dollars reviewing ineligible applications and managing high volume at call centers. Benefits.gov addresses these challenges by providing citizens with one reliable, easily accessible resource for benefit information using an expert, prescreening questionnaire tool: the Benefit Finder. This tool allows citizens to answer customized questions about their specific situation to determine what federally funded benefits they may be eligible to receive.
Over its 10 years of citizen service, Benefits.gov has grown far beyond its initial value. Since 2008, the program has offered its powerful prescreening technology as a broader shared service to federal agencies looking to implement similar functionality on their own websites for their unique constituencies. The Benefits.gov shared service solution saves taxpayer dollars by precluding an agency’s need to replicate and maintain a similar online prescreening solution. The Benefits.gov program currently supports three other public-facing websites: GovLoans.gov, BEST.SSA.gov, and DisasterAssistance.gov (see below for details). Since inception, the Benefits.gov Program has provided over $1 billion in cumulative value to citizens and government. Over $900 million was generated in total value for citizens and government operations in FY11 alone, over 250 times the cost to fund the program.
Components of a “Simple” Solution
To understand how something as seemingly simple as a questionnaire has made Benefits.gov’s technology valuable to government and citizens alike, it is important to understand the key components of the program that complement each other, as well as the changing needs of citizens and government over time.
Customized user experience. The benefit information delivery system, or Benefit Finder, is the core function of Benefits.gov. The Benefit Finder uses answers to the questionnaire to evaluate a visitor's situation, instantly cross-referencing the user’s responses with more than 20,000 benefit eligibility requirements for more than 1,000 federally funded benefit and assistance programs. After just a few opening questions, users are instantly provided with a list of benefits that they may be eligible to receive based upon their answers so far, as well as with the next steps to apply. The more questions a citizen answers, the more likely he or she will be eligible for the programs in their results list.
Benefits.gov understands the needs of citizens. Through years of implementing site revisions based on citizen feedback, the Benefits.gov platform has evolved into a highly effective and reusable solution. That unique expertise allows the program to better serve citizens and be able to offer other agencies an expertly pre-tailored product for their constituents, while saving taxpayer dollars.
Flexible, reusable, and customizable to stakeholder needs. From the start, Benefits.gov’s architecture was designed with intentions of sharing and extending components to other government entities. Agencies looking to replicate the Benefit Finder tool for their unique constituents can reuse Benefits.gov’s powerful prescreening technology and program database under their agency’s brand. For example, the program’s ability to quickly generate rapid solutions for critical administration needs allowed Benefits.gov to work in concert with FEMA to help serve the victims of the 2010 Gulf Coast Oil Spill.
However, this technology can prescreen for more than just benefit programs, opening the door to multiple possibilities for applications as a shared service. An added value to agencies using Benefits.gov is that the program is already operating in full compliance with government policies and regulations, including alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s 25 Point Implementation Plan To Reform Federal Information Technology Management.
The program’s growth and support for multiple sites, coupled with a site traffic upsurge in 2010 due in part to a weakened economy, created challenges and increased the need for additional capacity as well as an innovative, cost-effective and scalable hosting solution. In response, Benefits.gov and its portfolio of sites became one of the first E-Gov programs to operate in the cloud, optimizing cost-savings for the partnership, improving the user experience and establishing an already cloud-compliant platform for interested stakeholders.
Governed by a collaborative partnership. When multiple organizations with different sets of requirements use a shared service, it’s unlikely that each fit will be perfect. However, in this case, the active engagement of the Partnership diminishes the chances of contradicting one another’s interests. Working together, the 17 federal agencies in the partnership guide the strategic direction of the Program by using a permanent governance structure, allowing ongoing, effective interagency collaboration. With the Department of Labor as managing partner, the partnership grew from 10 agencies to a total of 17 by 2008.
The program’s permanent governance structure consists of representatives from each partner agency to encourage partner involvement in making decisions and strategic direction. This participation helps ensure each agency’s continued support for the program’s activities. As a result, Benefits.gov services have evolved to balance and meet the needs of its diverse citizen and government stakeholders by providing translation services, enterprise content management, and usability services.
It is these three interconnected components, highly-developed customized user experience; flexible and customizable technology for stakeholders; and the successful collaboration and balance of a multi-agency partnership, that have made the Benefits.gov Program a successful shared service provider from the beginning.
The Benefits.gov Program is a flagship example of the value and efficacy of E-Government, but it is also an excellent case study in the successful use and value of shared services. Just looking at Benefits.gov alone, we see that the government was able to provide multiple solutions to a range of challenges using a single shared service solution that continues to expand and evolve.
So before spending the money, time, and resources to create a service from scratch, remember that since our problems and challenges are often shared, so are our solutions.
Websites Supported by Benefits.gov Shared Service
GovLoans.gov: Launched in 2004 in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the site extends prescreening, hosting, and content management services features to Federal loan program information for citizens and small business owners.
SSA BEST: Launched in 2008, in partnership with the Social Security Administration. SSA migrated its architecture to use Benefits.gov prescreening, hosting, and content management shared services to eliminate redundancy and ensure its eligibility requirements were consistent with a centralized federal repository.
DisasterAssistance.gov: Launched in 2008, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency, as a direct response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Improvement Plan (DAIP) established a one-stop shop to help disaster victims easily find disaster-specific forms of assistance and reused Benefits.gov prescreening services to help prevent fraud, waste, and abuse. After finding programs they are likely eligible for, citizens can then apply through FEMA for many of these programs using a single online application.