Tennessee DHS Creates Agency of Change

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) is redefining customer service at the state level, following a state-wide process improvement and modernization initiative.

Landon Cook, director of customer service for Tennessee Department of Human Services, told attendees at ServiceNow’s Knowledge 19 conference in May that new solutions reduced citizen wait time in DHS offices by 85 percent – 2.5 hours to just five minutes.

Across the state, DHS is modernizing workflows, eliminating wait times, and providing customers with top-of-the-line service. “We have seen a lot of dramatic workflow improvements and want to show how small wins can start to assemble a large change management effort,” says Cook.

The Department is one of 47 agencies in Tennessee. Their mission is to build strong families by providing employment, education, and support services. These services include the State’s food stamp program, childcare assistance program, and support for citizens with disabilities entering the workforce. All programs impact Tennessee resident’s lives.

The Department’s 4,400 employees serve a customer base of approximately two million. Half of the staff communicate directly with external customers daily.

“Our vision is to revolutionize the customer experience through innovation and a seamless network of services,” said Cook. Today, the Tennessee DHS can point to significant progress towards that vision. They have short wait times and accessible platforms in place. The agency is a model for customer service transformation at the state level.

Just a few years ago the situation was very different. Operational errors made headlines. There were allegations of fraud. The child food program director resigned, reporting problems to the Federal government. Cook described the challenges as “costly for the agency and immeasurably costly for our customer base.”

Issues included quality control failures and poor auditing practices. For the Department to succeed, they needed to change their approach to people, processes, and technology.

Danielle Barnes became Commissioner of Human Services in 2017, with a mission to reform the agency and create a customer-first culture.

“In 2019, you should be able to use your phone and apply for services,” Barnes said at Child Advocacy Days Tennessee, an annual child advocacy leadership event. “You should be able to take a snapshot [on your phone] of whatever documents the government needs. You should be able to text your caseworker…no one wakes up wanting to spend 2.5 hours at a government office.”

Cook says their transformation had a lot to do with leadership. “Barnes structured a leadership team of people who are driven to use technology and lead change for how we operate as an organization,” he said. “She established three leadership priorities – people, processes, and technology.”

The Tennessee DHS acquired ServiceNow at the same time. Cook shared that the department started by identifying the technology needed to support the agency’s processes and new way of working – not the other way around. He describes technology as the engine that maintains momentum for change. And, importantly – that their processes support new ways of working, not technology. “We are not going to work processes around technology – we are going to define the technology to support the process,” said Cook.

He also emphasized the need to focus on continuous improvement and to stay flexible. “Our recent past tells us that in five years, of course, anything can happen,” Cook stated. “But we know we can’t spend five years just catching up to how people operate in 2019. We have to spend five years defining what our work will look like in 2024.”

Cook said this starts with upgrading legacy systems and heavily emphasizing automation. The team selected a ServiceNow Customer Service Management solution to digitize workflows and allow customers to interact with their own cases. The bottom line, Cook said, is that the agency must “adjust as technology and as our [staff and customer] partners change.”

He also shared the importance of collaboration with end users. “We regularly engage staff and customers … and not just through surveys and newsletters,” he said. People need to understand their government is listening and that the State is serious about providing good services, he explained.

“The purpose behind all of this has to remain the people,” Cook said, “we’ve pursued a very collaborative approach to change.”

The ServiceNow implementation started with a small pilot in one of DHS’ smallest divisions. Momentum grew quickly.

Cook said they saw the power of adoption first-hand when the partial Federal government shutdown forced the agency to figure out how to issue vital benefits to citizens a month in advance. Essentially, the Department needed to do a month of work in one week. At this time, just 11 counties had implemented the ServiceNow pilot.

The number of citizen customers coming in tripled prior to the shutdown. In counties without a pilot program in place, many of the legacy systems started to fail. “Kiosks started going down because the solution couldn’t support the volume of people coming in, phone calls were dropping from queues, and staff had to resort to manual processes,” shared Cook.

However, in counties with ServiceNow pilot implementations, things were much easier to manage. “I started to hear things differently from field staff [in these counties]. They weren’t saying things like ‘meltdown’ or ‘chaos’ or ‘panic,’ they were saying things like ‘challenging’ and ‘exciting’ and ‘teamwork,’” Cook stated. Because everyone in these counties had been trained on the system, there was no knowledge gap, making a dramatic impact on customer management when the storm came in.

The ServiceNow kiosks were able to handle triple the normal volume with ease and helped DHS deliver consistent, reliable service delivery.

Within a week, there were requests from field management directors to implement the platform in entire districts. “It’s just not about a kiosk, people are starting to see that we use these systems for more than just ‘people-in, people-out,” Cook said, “it’s not just a kiosk management system [or] a phone call management system…As time went on, we realized it does more than…keep records and help communicate with customers across a variety of formats. It is also a tool to start using for much bigger picture [goals].”

In six months, the Department went from 18 agents to 170 agents working on the kiosks and the average wait times were cut from two and a half hours at their highest to just five minutes. Employees in the field now have access to live reporting data and individual performance data, which came with the new platform.

Cook noted that changes didn’t happen overnight. And, he emphasized taking an agile approach to modernization is important. “[In the past], we saw multi-million, multi-year projects that extended for the longest periods of time and never turned into anything,” Cook shared. He explained this is exactly why the Department took a staggered approach to implementing the new platform, breaking it down by program.

Cook views transformation in government as a choice. Departments must choose to make changes because they can reduce costs and improve the customer experience, he continued.

For other agencies looking to modernize service delivery, Cook gives the following advice: seize opportunities for transformation and deliver technology changes in small increments.  He suggests making a habit of hosting “creative leveragability sessions” with users and other stakeholders to drive adoption and create agents of change.

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