Officials are already building a new IT solution aimed at enhancing the state employment agency’s response to backlogged unemployment claims, according to a new Strike Team report with other technology recommendations for the troubled department.
The report, commissioned July 29 and due 45 days after that, per a news release from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, arrived slightly behind schedule. The California Government Operations Agency (GovOps), whose Secretary Yolanda Richardson co-chaired the Strike Team with Jennifer Pahlka, co-founder of the United States Digital Response and the former founder of the United States Digital Service, released “Recommendations to Set Path for Reform at the Employment Development Department” on Saturday. (Its more detailed assessment can be found here.)
That’s the same day EDD began a two-week “reset” recommended by the team — during which it will not accept new unemployment insurance applicants, instead directing them to “a temporary webpage so EDD can collect their contact information,” EDD Director Sharon Hilliard said Friday in a response to the report, to Newsom. Applicants will be invited to file a claim once the pause is lifted. (Given EDD’s two-week waiting period for payment, the reset will affect only claimants’ applications, not the speed at which they’re paid, GovOps said in the report.) In an editorial Monday, The Sacramento Bee critiqued the timing, which Newsom subsequently defended. Among the takeaways:
• After a competitive procurement process that yielded responses from 14 vendors, the state has selected ID.me to provide a “commercial identity verification tool” for “automatic processing of more claims to get payments into the hands of claimants faster” and slow the growth of the claims backlog. Due to the “urgency of this improvement,” team members didn’t wait “for the full 45 days to elapse” but started working with EDD immediately. Starting Oct. 5, the tool is expected to reduce the number of claims that need some manual processing to around 3,500 a day — “a number that is within the department’s capacity to complete,” authors wrote. An excessive number of claims flagged for manual processing is the biggest factor driving EDD’s backlog; in the week ending Aug. 22, EDD received an average of 60,368 new electronic claims each day, according to the report. An average of 40 percent were earmarked for manual processing — 24,147 manual claims per day, a tenfold increase. That number holds fast: “On average, 40 percent (of) new claimants who apply today will go into manual processing,” per the report.
GovOps and EDD also developed an internal dashboard to aggregate data from “multiple EDD IT systems” for an overview of “present claims processing” — to track the department’s claims backlog on a daily basis and project its future status. (Claims aren’t counted as backlog unless they have been “undetermined” in the system for 21 days.) The dashboard and new tool could help EDD address the Strike Team’s recommendations that it “track, analyze and work down” the backlog daily and report the numbers publicly weekly. EDD agreed with the recommendation to track and work down the backlog daily, Hilliard said, highlighting “development of a daily dashboard that will measure the different steps within the UI claim process to closely monitor work items.”
• EDD has been able to “define and identify” its backlog into two areas using tools provided by the Strike Team, Hilliard said. Its Initial Claims Backlog is claims submitted more than 21 days ago that need EDD processing regardless of whether an action is needed to determine eligibility. As of Wednesday, there were 591,016 of these claims. Its Continued Claims Backlog contains claimants who received a payment or payments but have stopped receiving money due to “subsequent eligibility certification issues.” As of Wednesday, EDD estimates it has more than 1 million claimants in this category. The department is reviewing its data for accuracy and will provide an update on Thursday.
• Potentially longer range, report authors said EDD “must begin the process of truly transforming claimants’ experiences. This means rethinking the state’s plans for the Benefit Systems Modernization (BSM),” a project now “three years into requirements-gathering” with a contractor not yet selected. The Strike Team recommended directing EDD “to pause the implementation of the BSM project as planned and focus department energy on eliminating the backlog.” When the backlog is reduced and the team now working on BSM is no longer needed to process claims, “begin a bold, cross-disciplinary modernization project involving an overhaul of administrative rules and procedures, operations and technology, with a central focus on improving the experience of those filing for unemployment benefits.”
• The Strike Team recommends that EDD make its new electronic document upload system “mobile friendly” so it’s easier for claimants to provide required information; make the unemployment benefits application site mobile-friendly “so pages can be read, and forms can be filled out easily on small screens”; and make UI-Online accessible to all residents, including people with “different visual, auditory, cognitive and physical abilities.”
• The Strike Team recommends that EDD restructure its call center, retooling the Technical Assistant Line so claimants spend less time on hold; continue transitioning to the Verizon “virtual contact center” (VCC) so experienced claims representatives can make outgoing calls while working remotely; have experienced claims processors “actively call claimants”; and reassign new call center employees to tasks that reduce the backlog.
• During the reset period, the Strike Team proposed sending new claimants to a “pre-application” Web form that collects their name and email address, explains the temporary process and gives them guidance on what documents to gather. Once the new identity verification tool is operational, EDD can reopen the application form in UI-Online. CDT (California Department of Technology) staff are already creating the digital application form, “as additional resource augmentation to EDD,” the report authors wrote. “New claimants should not see a delay in benefit payments, and in fact many of them will actually get their payments faster as they avoid the older, time-intensive ID verification process,” Hilliard said in her response letter to Newsom.
• Strike Team members came from the private sector and government organizations including HealthCare.gov, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, CDT and the Office of Digital Innovation. The team included Amy Tong, CDT director and state chief information officer; Richard Rogers, CDT chief deputy director and deputy state CIO; CDT’s Jennifer (Uyeda) Issertell; Udaya Patnaik, ODI director; Eric Hysen, ODI project lead; ODI’s Dave Guarino; Justyn Howard, GovOps deputy secretary for Fiscal Policy and Administration; Nolice Edwards, GovOps senior adviser; Amy Palmer, GovOps deputy secretary of communications; and Mickey Dickerson, Carla Geisser, Marina (Martin) Nitze and Matthew Weaver, partners at Layer Aleph.