e-Texas e-Texassmaller smarter faster governmentDecember, 2000
Carole Keeton Rylander
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Recommendations of the Texas Comptroller


Chapter 8: Health and Human Services

Create an Internet Portal to

Provide Information on Texas Health and Human Services


Summary

The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) is working with a private vendor to create the TexasOnline Internet portal, a Web site allowing its users to access state business applications 24 hours a day. In a related project, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is working to improve the Texas Information and Referral Network, which is intended to provide a first point of contact for information on state health and human services. DIR and HHSC should coordinate these projects and include eligibility criteria and online applications for health and human services in the portal project.


Background

Many private companies have used Internet technology to improve their customer service, and citizens are beginning to expect the same from their governments. Customers can buy groceries, pharmaceuticals, and books over the Internet from their homes, after normal business hours, and have the goods delivered at their convenience. Retailers such as Amazon.com have created expectations for personalized service that does not require the customer, for instance, to re-enter the same information repeatedly.

This same consumer, however, may have to stand in line during daytime business hours to register his car, renew a driver’s license, or pay a traffic fine. Much of the same information, such as his or her name and address, will be needed in each of those transactions, and the taxpayer has to provide them over and over again.


Texas’ Portal Project

The 1999 Legislature took a major step toward improving customer service by creating the Electronic Government Task Force, a body charged with assessing the feasibility of conducting state and local government transactions through the Internet.[1] The task force, through a public-private partnership with a vendor, has developed a common business portal for the state that provides citizens with seamless access to a variety of government services. Through the portal’s secure Web site, citizens already can renew various licenses and certifications, file certain sales tax returns, and search for corporate status information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At this writing, the project has only a few agencies participating. Ultimately, however, TexasOnline is intended to become a true one-stop location for conducting business with Texas state and local governments, regardless of the level of government involved or the nature of the transaction.

The state’s portal framework includes:

  • A strong, secure Web site including authentication services ranging from passwords to digital signature technology.
  • The ability to grow as quickly as needed to meet customer demand.
  • Around-the-clock access.
  • The ability to trace transactions through the system.
  • Credit card and other electronic funds transfer payment technology.
  • Web application development services.
  • Call center services.
  • Assistance with outreach marketing to constituents.
  • Shared revenue from convenience or premium service fees.
  • Electronic interfaces with the state’s accounting systems and various agency computer systems.
  • Bilingual services in Spanish and English.

In addition, TexasOnline eventually will enable citizens interacting with multiple agencies to enter their identifying information only once.

Participating agencies expect to save money through the increased use of online transactions in place of walk-in or mail-in transactions, which require greater commitments of staff time and agency resources.


Program Management Office’s Role

While Texas government is decentralized by both design and tradition, this decentralization often results in the unnecessary overlap and duplication of efforts among state agencies. To make the best use of limited state resources, Texas needs a central coordinating office—a Program Management Office (PMO) within DIR, as discussed elsewhere in this report—to guide its electronic government initiatives and oversee their progress.


The Texas Information and Referral Network

In a related project, HHSC is working to improve its Information and Referral Network, which is designed to be a first point of contact for information on state health and human services. When the network was established in 1991, community information centers were the first points of contact for consumers and providers of health services. The network was reevaluated in 1995 and changed to a regional system with area information centers in place of community centers. The 1997 Legislature authorized HHSC to design a Web-based version of the statewide network.[2]

HHSC worked with experts from the public and private sectors to develop the comprehensive Web-based network. They proposed a network that complemented the 25 area information centers with an automated information warehouse regularly updated with data from the centers, and a central Web site to access regional information. HHSC is rolling out the comprehensive network incrementally over a three-year period that began in September 1999. This proposed network is a good starting point, but it does not go far enough in making health and human services information available to all citizens. The system also should offer access to the Texas Department of Human Services’ eligibility process and to online applications for services.


Consumer Problems

The average citizen has a difficult time navigating most state agency Web sites to find the right service because the sites are written in overly technical language or are organized by agency departments rather than by the services they provide. Without some knowledge of how the agency is organized, citizens find it difficult to locate the services they want or need.

An interesting example is provided by the recent experiences of Curt Mooney, president of Houston’s nonprofit DePelchin Childrens’ Center. Mooney is typical of many nonprofit agency managers who often need specialized state services for their clients. Recently, Mooney spent several hours on the phone with state agencies searching for a nursing facility for a child who had recently undergone open-heart surgery. He made about 15 phone calls to various state agencies; in many cases, people referred him to other phone numbers, and no one returned his calls. Finally, Mooney found one staff person who understood what he was looking for and was able to help. He said this was a frustrating experience because he did not know which state agency to call. “We need a better way for people to find information like this,” he said.[3]


Trends in Electronic Government

Governments are just beginning to move beyond simple online information-sharing to actual interaction with their customers. The current trend in state government is to develop a portal Web site organized by subject, rather than by agencies and departments. A portal organized in this way offers a more convenient and responsive way to find state services electronically without consolidating or physically changing the structure of state agencies.

Interactive Web sites allow users to apply for services and make payments online and to communicate with the state via e-mail. A number of states now allow citizens to pay their taxes online; in Arizona and Virginia, residents can renew their driver’s licenses online. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Texas are among states allowing permitting and licensing through the Internet.

Numerous states already have portals in place. North Carolina recently launched its portal, dubbed the [email protected] Service Project. The project offers its users three different informational “hubs”—a business portal, a citizen portal, and a state employee portal. Each takes users to a different information source or service without requiring them to know which agency is involved.

Montana’s Virtual Human Services Pavilion (VHSP) began with a $3 million investment to aid in welfare reform, but has done much more. It allows users to post and find jobs, helps Medicaid providers determine the eligibility of their patients, and offers access to information and services in commerce and education. The newest addition to VHSP is a “virtual” assistant, essentially a search tool for all sites associated with VHSP.[4]

South Dakota’s Web portal, “Get it Done in South Dakota,” assists its users with practical tasks such as locating money to pay for child care, applying for a gas tax refund, and registering to vote. One full-time employee designed the Web site and its infrastructure. Other state agency staff provided information links for the site; yet another employee maintains the site. The site was established in about eight months.[5]

A recent survey by the Center for Digital Government measured states’ progress in using the Internet to deliver social services. States were measured on their use of electronic services such as smart cards, electronic benefits transfer (EBT) and online child support collection services. Texas tied for fifth place, largely due to its implementation of EBT. Only Washington, the state that ranked highest in the survey, has begun using the Internet for the state’s social service agencies in a significant way.[6]


What Texas Consumers Say

Citizens responding to a Comptroller survey regarding electronic state services said that it is difficult to find a central Web site with links to all state services.[7] The key problems they identified were out-of-date information and a lack of e-mail addresses or phone numbers to request further information. The respondents indicated that citizens said they would like greater online access to a variety of state services, such as applications for sales tax permits and eligibility criteria and applications for Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare.

The respondents’ primary concerns revolved around security issues. For example, many citizens stated that they were concerned about providing their Social Security numbers as an identifier for state services, and about the improper disclosure of personal information to other entities.

Overall, consumers want better, faster access to state services over the Internet. The majority place a high priority on a portal and associated Web pages that are user-friendly and easy to follow.


Recommendations

A. The Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) should coordinate with the proposed Program Management Office (PMO) to establish health and human services information on the TexasOnline state portal.

The PMO, as recommended elsewhere in this report, should help coordinate this effort among HHSC agencies. A health and human services portal should be one of the first projects undertaken by the PMO. If the PMO is not funded by the Legislature, HHSC should coordinate the effort with the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR).

In addition, the e-Texas recommendation on improving the eligibility determination process for Medicaid is approved by the Legislature, online applications for 50 programs at the Texas Department of Human Services, including welfare, Medicaid and food stamps, also should be added to the Web site. Eventually, all state health and human service applications for services should be available online for anyone applying for services from the State of Texas.

TexasOnline should include the following:

  • Eligibility criteria, developed in coordination with HHSC, other health and human services agencies, and DIR.
  • Web sites that are interactive and allow users to communicate via e-mail with a contact person at every state and local service provider.
  • A convenient and responsive way to find state services electronically.
  • Content oriented around service delivery and customer need, not agency boundaries.
  • Web site design and applications that comply with the Texas Open Records Law and Texas Accessibility guidelines.

B. HHSC should work with other state agencies and local health and human services providers to continue developing the Internet-based Information and Referral Network to provide information through the TexasOnline portal.


Fiscal Impact

Texas’ health and human services agencies already have established Web presences, and these recommendations would only require improvements in how health and human services information is displayed and coordinated over the Internet. The development of the portal would require cooperation among agencies, and should be accomplishable with existing resources.


[1] TexasOnline Communication Plan (http://www.dir.state.tx.us/egov/fag.htm)

[2] V.T.C.A., Government Code §531.0312, 531.0313, 531.0314.

[3] Telephone interview with Curt Mooney, DePelchin Childrens’ Center, Houston, Texas, May 18, 2000.

[4] Bryan M. Gold, “Getting Bigger in Big Sky Country,” Technology Trends (July 1999), p. 24.

[5] Telephone interview with Patrick Groce, Web site designer, South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, Pierre, South Dakota, May 15, 2000.

[6] Tod Newcombe, “Reinventing Welfare for the Digital Age,” Government Technology (April 2000, p. 1 (www.govtech.net/publications/gt2000/apr/digitalstates2/digitalstates2.shtm). (Internet document.)

[7] Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, “Results of Fiscal Notes Survey” (Austin, Texas, August 2000).



e-Texas is an initiative of Carole Keeton Rylander, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Post Office Box 13528, Capitol Station
Austin, Texas

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