Help Desk Keeps Minnesota Welfare Workers in the Loop

When the Minnesota Department of Human Services (MDHS) went shopping for a new system that would help quickly and easily resolve complex eligibility questions, it wasn't expecting to come home with a help-desk system in hand. Nor was the department particularly wedded to the idea of using the Internet as a distribution medium.

"During the RFI, and even during the RFP, we never said we needed a help-desk product. We just geared the request toward our policy needs," recalls Dale Simonson, the local agency-support section supervisor for MDHS and the person responsible for overseeing the bidding process. "In terms of delivery, we saw everything from mainframe-only solutions to purely Internet packages."

As it turned out, the Enterprise Helpdesk System from Applix Inc. (www.applix.com) and a combination of local-area network/wide-area network and Internet distribution fit the bill, so much so that the department is now in the initial stages of building a knowledge base that will eventually let eligibility case workers in the field resolve problems and track queries on their own.

"The use of help-desk software for public service is becoming more and more prevalent, and more connection is occurring electronically through kiosks or Web links," said Richard Swanson, an analyst with The Bentley Co., a Hudson, Mass., consultancy that specializes in customer service implementation. "Internet-type connections are just another way to facilitate the connection to the customer."

MDHS currently maintains eight policy centers to answer case workers' questions about payment procedures, medical providers and so on, including a center in Simonson's group that is used by financial workers to determine eligibility for welfare and other MDHS services at the county level.

County staff submit questions to a policy center by phone, fax or mail and then wait while policy center employees sift through previous requests, policy manuals and other print and on-line data to find an answer. Tentative answers come back relatively quickly, but a full, final resolution sometimes requires a week or longer, and the convoluted paper trail makes it difficult to leverage previous work.

In addition, the department also maintains a separate, more traditional help desk to answer questions about MAXIS, the mainframe-based automated welfare computer system that logs and tracks every recipient. Initially, it seemed like a good idea to keep policy questions separate from procedural questions, Simonson says. But over time, the two areas have blurred. "Any time you're dealing with automated systems, it's hard to segregate the system from policy," he said. In determining eligibility for food stamps, for example, a worker might ask how many vehicles a client may own and if any are exempt. But at the same time, he also needs to learn how to enter vehicle exemptions into MAXIS. "What we were hoping to do is to merge the two a little bit more by creating a knowledge base for frequently asked questions."The first phase of the policy inquiry automation project, just now getting under way, calls for MDHS to build and populate a Microsoft Corp. SQL Server database to act as a knowledge base of past eligibility decisions and, eventually, of current legislation and other policy documents. Some 150 workers connected by LANs and WANs will be able to search the database using Applix's help-desk tools as a front end. The Applix software will reside on desktop units alongside the MAXIS 3270 program, according to Simonson.

The system will allow MDHS to provide faster and more accurate service to its customers and to leverage past work, thereby eliminating redundant efforts. "We can capture the resolution path a person took [within the knowledge base] so the next time a similar problem comes up, you can trace the path of the resolution," explained Jeanne Browning, the government sales representative in Applix's Vienna, Va., office who worked closely on the Minnesota project. Tracking capabilities built into Applix's software will allow employees to check on the status of a query, so clients can be told exactly when they can expect their problem to be resolved. The tracking tool will also help management fine-tune the entire eligibility system and MAXIS in particular, Simonson says. "Tracking will tell us what types of questions are coming in, how long a call is kept open and where we need to concentrate our efforts to improve," he said.

A second phase calls for bringing in via Internet (or intranet-the department has yet to decide) an additional 200 workers from the state's 87 counties as well as workers from related agencies. Using Applix's Web tool, WebLink, which automatically translates material into Hypertext Markup Language, employees initially would be able to perform their own searches, turning to the policy centers for help only when they are unable to find a precedent already on file. The Internet links, however, are still a ways off, Simonson says. Only a few counties currently are Internet-enabled, though more should be linked by the end of the year.

Once the Internet elements are in place, the department will be able to link to various policy and legislative documents elsewhere on-line. "Legislation, either federal or state, is out there on the Internet already," Simonson said. "We could point to the most up-to-date information without having to update it ourselves. There's a cost savings there." Use of the Internet makes particular sense for a state such as Minnesota, which has a few densely populated regions that can cost-justify a direct WAN link but which is filled with rural areas that have neither the population nor the budget to support such a link.

The Internet is a relatively inexpensive, universal way to bring outlying counties into the system, Browning says. On the security front, she says, the system will use standard browser-level data encryption, a double log-on procedure in addition to system-level security and the ability to build profiles, which provide different levels of access to various users. As a final phase, MDHS plans eventually to open the system up even further to clients, who could post their own eligibility questions via the Web. But Simonson says the state won't take that step until the rest of the system has been up, running and well-tested for user-friendliness. "End-user access is clearly an attribute of an advanced call-center environment, but you have to be careful about what you push out to end users," warns Chris Pavlic, a senior research analyst with The Aberdeen Group in Boston. "If you inundate the client, that can result in frustration."

Simonson was unwilling to disclose a dollar figure for the project. Browning says a typical Applix contract, which includes the multipackage help-desk application suite plus training, consulting and implementation support, costs "multiple hundreds of thousands" of dollars.

MDHS won budget approval for the project the old-fashioned way, Simonson says: They justified it. "This wasn't any quick thing. It was a long, painful process that took us several years." Many months of background research preceded the initial request for information, which was issued in January 1996; the request for proposals followed in late summer 1996. Partial funding was included in Minnesota's 1996/1997 budget.

Other MDHS policy centers are monitoring the eligibility project carefully, and if it's successful, it most likely will be used elsewhere in the department, Simonson says. Browning concurs.

"This is a very high-profile system within the state. Minnesota has been innovative in using technology creatively to reach its people, and they're being careful to implement this system very methodically so everyone will be signed on."

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached via the Internet at tmayor@shore.net.

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