In a sense, there was no way for local governments not to be caught off guard by COVID-19. The first few days of March saw a few dozen cases in a handful of states, and by March 27 the virus had eclipsed 100,000 cases from coast to coast. States closed offices, in-person government services ceased as unemployment claims soared, and many businesses — especially small ones — needed a helping hand to survive. The pandemic has presented a test case for digital services and cloud technology to prove their worth, and some states like Maryland, amid the maturation of its online platform called Maryland OneStop, have been able to put in place solutions literally overnight because they had been laying the groundwork for years.
How fast can you create a solution?
To distribute grants and loans to small businesses statewide, the Maryland Department of Information Technology (DoIT) worked with the state Department of Commerce to add new functionality to a platform which they launched in early 2018. Lance Schine, Deputy Secretary of DoIT, said OneStop was envisioned as a digital services platform that multiple departments could use for various permits and licenses, giving citizens a uniform system across the frontline. -end with a frame for extensions and modifications on the back.
Schine likened it to the iPhone user interface, which hasn’t changed much in years, while the back-end is under constant revision.
“We realized that having dozens of different systems wasn’t really efficient, so we built the Maryland OneStop platform…one place people can go for hundreds of licenses, permits, and certifications, with a unique and universal experience. The ultimate goal is to decouple the front-end from the back-end, so that a citizen logs in, puts all their information into this OneStop, and they do all the work on the back-end,” he said. . “Our front end is responsive, so it runs in your native browser. It can run on your desktop, tablet, smartphone.”
From the start, OneStop was a work in progress that never really ended. Following the nimble mindset, Schine said, the state initially came up with a minimum viable product in 2018 that served, say, the Maryland Department of Health, but it continued to add features and enhancements that would other agencies could use, adapting the platform on a case-by-case basis.
“If we establish connections to a payment gateway, anyone who needs to use OneStop that requires payment can now take advantage of this integration work that has already been done,” he said. “If we’re building functionality for one department in an agency, all of a sudden all the departments in that agency and every other agency in the state can leverage that functionality.”
This approach in 2018 meant the platform was easy to adapt in 2020 and was already familiar to other departments, including Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, who previously served as Secretary of the Labor, Licensing and Regulatory Department. . As soon as the state decided to provide grants to small businesses through the OneStop platform, Schulz staff provided a list of high-level requirements to Schine’s office. The list quickly went to Enovational, the Washington, DC app developer that won the state’s bid to set up OneStop two years prior.
“Since [Enovational] was intimately involved…and the small business solution was basically intake and workflow, it was a good fit, and they did it very quickly,” Schine said. “We have just taken advantage of the current contract to add new forms to the OneStop platform.”
Besides the technology, Schulz’s understanding of the business processes involved (knowing what information people need to collect and how to process it) was essential for a quick turnaround.
“The speed of implementation is quite dependent on requirements gathering. If someone comes to us and says, “We need to collect information, we don’t know what we need to collect, we don’t know what conditional forms are…and we don’t know what other databases we need authenticate against, and you’re creating this all from scratch, obviously it takes longer,” Schine said. “If they come to you with a 10-page form, they’ve been doing it for 10 years already, they know the business process and they know exactly what they need to do, it’s a much faster speed to implement, putting aside the technology piece… We’re going to rethink [the business process] when we go from paper to computer, but at least we know what the process requires. »
Enovational’s chief operating officer, Chum Chancharadeth, recalled being approached at 5 p.m. on March 24. At 1 a.m., a Maryland OneStop portal was up and running to handle small business grant applications.
“Part of the reason we were able to put the loans and grant application online is that the platform was already launched and developed,” Chancharadeth said. “The two years we invested in developing the platform helped a lot.”
He approached the project with the goal of using the latest open source tools for the tech stack and hosting it in the cloud. Specifically, he used Ruby on Rails for the web application framework, MongoDB for the database, Elasticsearch for the search engine, and AWS GovCloud for hosting.
Schine said the fact that the state already had a shared cloud infrastructure with controls and security mechanisms in place, in AWS GovCloud, allowed it to quickly deploy new solutions. That, combined with the fact that the OneStop platform was already part of the state’s digital infrastructure, meant that the small business grant project wasn’t starting from scratch on major components.
From a project management perspective, Chancharadeth reiterated the importance of decoupling the user experience from the audience from the workflow. He said this allowed Enovational to focus on getting the citizen-facing app up and running while taking more time with Schine’s department to finalize the approval process and the steps involved in application processing.
Schine said it takes a week or two before all onboarding points are completed and application processing is automated.
Never too early to talk about next time
Chancharadeth said Maryland OneStop received about 18,000 applications for grants and small business loans in the first three days, and 56,000 in one month. The program is now closed, but Schine and Chancharadeth were generally happy with it.
Chancharadeth said that without the time pressure of a pandemic and government shutdown, Enovational could have spent a few weeks fleshing out the backstory before launch rather than after. But he doesn’t think it would have made a noticeable difference to the end result, as the platform was already in place.
“It was just a matter of fixing all the business processes behind the scenes, but in this case we needed the app ready right away,” he said. “So we tried to respect that, and we did that within the 24-hour deadline.”
If the project taught him a lesson, it was a lesson he already knew: “Don’t try to do something in 24 hours,” he laughs.
Schine, too, was not pleasantly surprised by the process. He said that under more ideal circumstances, they could have performed an end-to-end analysis of the entire system and worked out all the integration points and methodologies for collecting information from citizens before the launch. But given the urgency, he was glad they had an adaptable platform where the front-end could be modified and launched so quickly.
“There are a lot of systems across the country that failed because the front end system was tied to an old back end system, and the back end systems couldn’t handle the load,” Schine said. “What we do is collect all the information, in a secure environment, and then process the back-end integration at whatever cadence that back-end can handle,” he said. “So the public isn’t just sitting there with the system timeout because it’s not an older primary system that can’t handle the volume that many states have experienced because COVID affects a percentage if high of people in their condition. Their systems were not prepared for this.
Reflecting on the non-technical reasons why the project moved so quickly, Schine mentioned a few common best practices: open communication between departments, everyone on calls at the same time, everyone on the same page.
“It was one of many emergency responses we were able to do as we spent years preparing for our agency to be able to implement things faster and more efficiently,” he said. -he declares. “It paid off during COVID.”