Texas Twist

It may sound like a dance, but Texas' TWIST is a system that actually eliminates steps for the state's citizens to get from welfare to work.

TWIST, a.k.a. The Workforce Information System of Texas, gives more than 30 statewide agencies a single point of access to welfare, job training and placement information residing on a variety of state legacy systems. The result: unified delivery of career services that has literally reduced the legwork for welfare clients and streamlined government agency processes.

The state tapped Sybase Inc. to provide the development tools, databases and middleware to bridge its myriad outdated systems and help migrate them to a more current client/server architecture. The first phase of the project, finished September 1997, has already resulted in public domain software templates that are being piloted by other government entities.

"Texas is one of the first states that is really doing a customer- or citizen-centric infrastructure," said Jack Cain, director of Sybase's Health and Human Services Division, Bethesda, Md. "They're building IT systems that are not stovepipe or vertical in nature but [are] true horizontal systems that touch all the different programs and get their data."

TWIST was born out of state legislation that mandated that work force and welfare programs previously administered by different federal, state and local agencies be brought under one roof. A new agency, the Texas Workforce Commission, was charged with making it happen. The TWC has since overcome hurdles often associated with mergers, such as turf wars, to get the formerly autonomous agencies to collaborate and share information.

"We had disparate architectures, disparate e-mail, different ways of doing business, different cultures, not to mention these application systems that the state charged the new agency with consolidating and delivering at a local level," explained Mike Fernandez, director of information systems for the TWC, Austin. "We are now providing service to the client in a single location."

As a result, caseworkers spend less time managing information and more time with clients. Subsequent phases, such as re-engineering key mainframe databases-such as the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) and Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs-for the SQL Server platform will further improve efficiency.

The Mother of Invention

Because of the 1995 legislation (Bill 1863), Texas found itself in front of the trend to consolidate employment and job training agencies, all with their own systems for each grant program. Fortunately, Texas had a head start. The TWC was able to leverage previous work done under a U.S. Labor Department grant for one-stop career centers and an abandoned effort to merge Health and Human Services programs, which actually served as the foundation for TWIST-work valued at $750,000 to $1 million.

Officials looked nationwide for integrated models to emulate, but they did not find any beyond a few prototypes. After considering outsourcing options and looking at Oracle Corp.-which proposed rewriting the first application for free-they chose Sybase. It was an easy decision; during the TWC's formation, the group inherited an unlimited Sybase license from the Department of Human Services. Sybase's approach also meshed with the state's plans to move to an open environment. Plus, there were other Sybase databases the TWC wanted to connect to within Texas. Moreover, Sybase proposed a common interface to the state's existing incompatible systems, a move that would preserve millions of dollars in technology investments across the state.

The federally funded tab came to about $2 million, including software, hardware and consulting services, according to Sybase. The total cost to date, including facilities, is about $2.5 million to $3 million and is expected to grow to just less than $6 million when all phases are complete, Fernandez estimated. This is a very good deal, he said, relative to the scope of the statewide project.

Sybase lent three consultants to the project: one for applications development, another for middleware and a third for database work. In the process, they transferred their skills to the TWC development staff, which stands at 42 employees. The key Sybase components include the PowerBuilder 5.0 family of tools for developing TWIST's graphical front end, and EnterpriseConnect and Adaptive Server Enterprise middleware running with SQL Server 11.0.2 on an Hewlett-Packard Co. server. The HP server, also equipped with Sybase's Net Gateway for HP/UX, acts as the repository for hot data pulled off legacy systems, including an IBM Corp. mainframe running Sybase's Open Server for CICS (see chart).

Officials are so pleased with the performance that they've scrapped more ambitious plans. "We thought we were going to use it as just a kind of a stopgap to get us through a hump," said Joan Kotal, TWIST project manager. "But it worked so well that we just keep expanding on it."

Phased Approach

The first phase of TWIST called for a conversion from a dumb- terminal environment to 2,000 PCs or Network Computers with a common Microsoft Corp. Windows interface to access all the necessary databases. The same code, written once, works across Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT or NC clients. Phase One development began in July 1996 and took a little more than a year to complete.

Instead of citizens going to one office for welfare, another for job placement and so on, they go to one caseworker who offers a more holistic approach. Any caseworker can punch in a name and receive a complete history of all services associated with that client, along with an accurate picture of job opportunities. And as a caseworker updates a record, it is updated across all databases. TWIST has helped clean up data systemwide and limit the possibility of fraud. The system handles an average of 8,000 transactions per day-16,000 during peak periods.

"It makes a real difference in the final outcome of what happens with clients and certainly how they feel about the quality of services they get," Kotal said. "It doesn't matter what services they want, you don't have to say, 'Go down the hall, down the street or across town and fill this out all over again.' "

TWIST cut time associated with manual information intake, so caseworkers can devote more energy to making sure clients obtain and retain jobs. "The intake process used to take 45 minutes; now it takes 20 minutes," she added. "But that doesn't mean they see more clients. They are actually able to spend more time doing case management-serving the client as opposed to filling out forms. You get to make the best use of both your funds and making sure that people are participating in those work programs and not falling through the cracks anymore."

Dealing with the incompatible systems was easy compared to learning the tools and reinventing business processes. "Nobody had worked with Sybase or PowerBuilder, and it was our first real client/server application, " Kotal said. "Nothing was easy about it; it was complex. You need at least a year of programming with PowerBuilder to really feel comfortable."

While Phase One was beneficial-and award-winning (Council for Excellence in Government)-phases Two and Three are viewed as more critical. Phase One erected the interface to existing systems; the next phases will replace those systems, eventually resulting in one database with integrated reporting for all programs. Phase Two, which went live in May, brought the JTPA database off the mainframe to SQL Server. The JOBS database will be next, in January. "What they've done today has been good," Fernandez said. "But I think that a very key component now is turning the JOBS piece."

Kotal and Fernandez said if they had to do it over again, the phases would be reversed. Kotal would have implemented the JTPA conversion ahead of common intake. "In the time it took us to do that, I would have liked to have converted a system first," she said. "You would have replaced something; I wouldn't have had to add another bureaucracy before I start taking away." Fernandez would have converted the JOBS database ahead of JTPA, noting that it's too much in need of re-engineering to be run locally. "If I had to do it again, I'd flip it," he said.Next up is putting in performance measurements and financial reporting features. "Each of those programs have built-in performance requirements at the state and federal level, and that functionality should be in the system," Fernandez said. Then it's on to Phase Four, which is not completely defined but will follow TWIST's logical progression to date-from job training to job placement-to include conversion of Employment Services and Unemployment Insurance (UI) databases.

Now that the architecture is in place, developers are rolling out new applications quickly, about one per quarter. "Now that they have a common intake and case management applicable to any program and the infrastructure to connect to all the data elements, all they have to do is code business rules for an application and, like a Lego block, plug it into the architecture," Sybase's Cain said.

Political Wrangling

Not everything about TWIST was plug-and-play. Early on, problems were often more political than technical. "The truth is, there is a lot of pushback, a lot of organizations were at first intimated, scared or concerned about other agencies coming into their data," Cain said. "Other agencies tried to kill the project to get the money in their shop."

He credits Kotal's perseverance with breaking down barriers. She formed a workgroup with members from state agencies and local services to work through the give and take. But she wasn't beyond resorting to some tried-and-true incentives, such as paying one agency subcontractor to do the necessary work. "By the time we actually starting developing, we didn't have a lot of resistance between the agencies," she said.

TWIST eventually fostered collaboration. Similar to participation rates in welfare programs, for example, JTPA has performance standards attached to the program that require clients to be working within 13 weeks of finishing services. Traditionally, that's checked by calling the client. Because TWIST already taps into the UI wage record database, the TWC and Labor Department are jointly exploring pulling in UI wage records to save about $450,000 that is now spent in follow-up calls.

Leverage Texas' Investment

TWIST is being promoted for use with any public service application, with a basic architecture that can be adapted to meet a smorgasbord of requirements. For example, it's currently being piloted for work force programs in Merced County, Calif., and North Carolina. "It allows a lot of flexibility and customization," Kotal said. "You can add new fields to the database very easily." And because it was federally funded, it is free.

-- Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at jemorrissey@msn.com.

*****

Performances Measures

A primary goal of welfare reform is to reduce public spending. Texas officials can point to anecdotal evidence of improvements, such as a 55 percent productivity gain for case workers. But they said it is too early to measure TWIST's performance or whether the system can demonstrate sufficient improvements in putting people to work so that additional funds might be available under federal guidelines.

"That's a tough one to answer now," Fernandez said. "The driving force was not to eliminate bodies or reduce sites. The [driving force] was, 'Look, we've got three of four different [system] looks out there that are really not conducive to delivering this service in a consolidated manner.' There's going to be staff efficiencies gained with the single look and feel of the application, and cost savings in elimination of redundant data. I just can't tell you what they will be."

And although one new bureaucracy had sprung up around TWIST, other bureaucracies were dismantled as more programs were merged into the unified application. "In the beginning, you just saw another bureaucracy," said Joan Kotal, TWIST project manager. "But now, a year into it, we are starting to see a reduction. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is going to be grand."

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