Fixing governmentwide backlogs will take more than technology

Tom Romeo, the general manager of Maximus Federal, makes the case for agencies to do process improvements along with IT upgrades.

Government agencies process millions of requests annually for citizens who need access to benefits, services and information. Today, the systems and processes that manage these requests are vastly outmatched in both scale and ability — and as more requests accumulate each day, the backlogs grow.

The challenges with backlogs across many agencies are well documented. Requests, especially appeals, simply can’t be processed fast enough. As a result, citizens are waiting months (or even years) for a decision or resolution, while the long road to modernizing the underlying legacy systems further contributes to the delays. Not only is this frustrating to citizens, this can be expensive and inefficient for the agency. And, while many attempts have been made to address this issue, only a handful have been able to successfully reduce and eliminate backlogs in the long term.

It’s no wonder these systems are in crisis. They’re strained by a growing and aging population that is applying for benefits at an unprecedented scale. They’re hampered by technology that’s running on legacy systems that can be more than 50 years old. And, they’re trying to keep up with demands of a population whose expectation for efficient customer service is shaped by online retailers like Amazon.

Much of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of where these systems break down. Historically, backlog issues have been tackled from the front end — by purchasing new IT systems meant to accelerate how information is collected and stored within the agency, or by hiring more employees to process the work. However, without addressing the heart of the problem — inefficient and broken processes that create bottlenecks and siloed data that hampers the decision-making ability of the people who need to examine and evaluate it — even the most sophisticated IT system or increase in headcount will not be able to reduce backlogs.

Solving the problem starts with a focused definition of the desired outcomes and the metrics by which to measure them. Once this is defined, process improvement experts can identify where the problems exist and analyze how to remove or remediate them. They can also leverage lessons learned from successful government programs that have prevented or resolved backlogs and apply best practices from programs that are held accountable for achieving (or overachieving) timelines.

Next, they can implement innovative technologies that support the redesigned business processes and help to automate or streamline overly labor-intensive activities. This does not necessarily have to be done in one massive effort either; it can also be approached by implementing pilot programs that demonstrate how the new processes, applied innovative technology and special expertise can reduce the backlog.

One example of success with this strategy is a federal health agency that contracted out some of its beneficiary appeals to vendors for reviews and processes. The vendors used a system built to share the needed data and then structured to process it in an efficient manner. This led to a drastic increase in the number of appeals cases that were processed per month, without accumulating a backlog, and the ability to process approximately 75 percent of the appeals in three days or less.

Additionally, because the vendors are held accountable to meeting definitive timelines throughout the process and are required to strictly adhere to specific deadlines, they needed to be able to adjust to accommodate volume fluctuations. This meant creating instances where they applied innovation to prevent any one part of the system from creating bottlenecks, further helping reduce backlogs.

As the population continues to grow and age, more people will continue to need access to government services for many reasons. Even in the immediate future, faced with the long-term impact of the most recent devastating hurricane season, we know that the Department of Homeland Security will be likely be dealing with its own backlogs as citizens of Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico and others apply for and appeal federal aid decisions.

It’s imperative that we meet this backlog issue head-on, or it will continue to compound each day. The problem must be addressed by reengineering business processes, streamlining repeatable tasks and accelerating decision making by making information more accessible and actionable.

Tom Romeo is the general manager for the U.S. federal services segment at Maximus.

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