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Insider One-on-One: Texas Workforce Commission CIO Discusses Achievements, Plans

Heather Hall, a career technologist with a deep background in state government who’s now chief information officer for the Texas Workforce Commission, offered her views in an interview with Industry Insider – Texas on where her agency is going and how it’s using digital transformation.

As part of Industry Insider — Texas’ ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their leaders, their IT plans and their initiatives, here’s the latest in a periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

In a career spanning some 30 years, Heather Hall has worked in technology in the private sector, the public sector and education. In state government, she’s worked in technology in the Texas Office of the Attorney General, the Texas Department of Human Services, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. She was named chief information officer for the Texas Workforce Commission in March 2019, capping a rise through a series of increasingly responsible roles. Hall received her bachelor’s degree in Latin from Baylor University. She received her master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Texas at Austin; and her doctorate in information science from the University of North Texas.

Heather Hall mug cropped.jpg
Heather Hall, CIO of the Texas Workforce Commission
This interview, conducted by email, has been lightly edited for style and brevity.

Industry Insider — Texas: As the CIO for the Texas Workforce Commission, how do you describe your role — and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Heather Hall: As the chief information officer for the Texas Workforce Commission, my role is to oversee the people, processes and technologies for our agency to ensure alignment with our strategy to deliver outcomes that support our internal and external customers. These responsibilities have never been more important than in the last two years with the TWC’s major role in the COVID-19 pandemic response. IT has worked very closely with our business partners to move quickly to address changes and implement new tools to assist our internal customers to help support Texans. At the beginning of the pandemic, we shifted operations to facilitate the ability of our agency staff to work remotely for their safety, while continuing to serve the needs of Texans.

One of the values a CIO can offer is evaluating technology offerings and recognizing how those technologies can help your organization fix a problem, be more efficient, or serve customers better. For example, several years ago, we implemented a digital signature technology. That new technology allowed us to automate and streamline our new-hire onboarding process. This eliminated the paper process of mailing new-hire packets to employees and then scanning and storing that documentation when received at the agency. Now our far more efficient process allows our new hires to complete forms online and, on completion, those forms are routed to the assigned person in HR to process. We’ve received positive feedback from new hires on the smooth, automated onboarding experience. In another example of creating efficient, modern processes, TWC finished our implementation of an integrated communication platform just a few months before the pandemic. We had just started training staff on the features when the pandemic hit, and our staff quickly adopted the use of this new and innovative tool.

I see a continued trend of shifting from building and supporting large applications in-house, to buying configurable off-the-shelf or software-as-a-service options. Technology is moving at such a rapid pace, that it often makes business and fiscal sense to utilize third-party products that are already available. This is the “CIO as a broker” trend that NASCIO describes as “enabling engagement with customers, technology markets and government stakeholders to improve service delivery for citizens.” When we need to code in-house, we are also starting to explore low-code or rapid development options.

Industry Insider: Do you have an IT strategic plan for your organization? Can we get a copy? (Note: We won’t share the answers to the above question without your permission.)

Hall: We do not share our strategic plan externally because it contains information about planned and open procurements, but I can share the four goals that we aim to achieve.
  • Goal 1 – External Customer Service: Use innovative, reliable and modern technology to provide accessible services through multiple convenient (ease-of-use) channels.
  • Goal 2 – High Quality Services: Maintain a skilled and knowledgeable workforce that provides scalable, flexible and adaptable systems that deliver accurate data and services to our customers.
  • Goal 3 – Collaborate and Innovate to Improve Service Delivery: Drive new processes and technologies internally to deliver better, faster and more efficient services to customers.
  • Goal 4 – Excellence in Government: Provide a secure and stable environment that provides accurate, consistent and timely information to empower optimal business decisions while protecting agency data and customer confidentiality.

Industry Insider: What big IT initiatives or projects are coming to the Workforce Commission in 2022? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Hall: The Texas Workforce Commission is in the process of a massive transformation of our core, mission-critical systems, including:
  • Unemployment Insurance (UI) System – replace UI legacy mainframe and web systems including Tax, Benefits and Appeals with a modern, cloud-based, system. This replacement is scheduled to be completed in summer 2024.
  • UI Tele-Center Modernization – replace end-of-life Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and Tele-Serv application with a modern and flexible system to improve customer service and expand IVR hours for claimants. Scheduled completion by October 2023.
  • Workforce Case Management System – replace Workforce legacy system to streamline case management activities for staff and Workforce Solutions Boards to provide a better, more integrated customer service experience. There are 28 Workforce Solutions Boards in the state of Texas that provide services with the guidance of TWC. Scheduled completion by September 2023.
  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) Replacement – replace legacy WOTC system with a cloud-based system that improves the customer experience and automates paper processes. Scheduled completion by August 2023.
  • Foreign Labor Certification Application System Replacement – replace legacy FLC system with a cloud-based system that improves the customer experience for both Texas employers seeking temporary labor and TWC employees tracking FLC data. Scheduled completion by August 2023.
  • Child Care Case Management System – replace legacy system with a cloud-based system to enhance the collection of daily child-care attendance information and integrate the online Child Care Availability Portal into the new CCCM system. Scheduled completion by June 2024.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Case Management (VRCM) System – upgrading our existing VRCM to provide VR staff with an updated and enhanced case management system which includes a fully integrated case review oversight capability. In addition, this project will move our existing system to the cloud, update the core technologies, and upgrade the database structure to help ensure that Vocational Rehabilitation Division staff can more efficiently and effectively serve VR customers. Scheduled completion by August 2023.
  • TWC Internet Redesign – Replace the existing TWC website with a modern look and design. Improvements will include greater readability, more efficient navigation, and better search capabilities. Scheduled completion by August 2023.
  • Agency Wide Text Messaging – implement a texting platform to allow TWC staff in various program areas to text with customers to provide information, request information, set appointments, etc. Scheduled completion by August 2023.

Industry insider: How do you define “digital transformation,” and how far along is your organization in that process? How do you know when it’s finished?

Hall: I look at digital transformation as infusing better technologies including tools, processes and people to improve the customer experience. Once we modernize the portfolio projects I mentioned, we will have made significant progress on our transformation efforts. Recently, we’ve accelerated our progress on some tactical and transformative improvements during the pandemic. For example, we:
  • Created a chatbot to answer more than 100 questions in a new communications channel. The chatbot has answered over 20 million questions to date.
  • Implemented a contact request form to allow customers to keep their place in line without waiting on hold.
  • Instituted a learning system within our labor exchange system called that helps Texans reskill.
  • Automated our open records processing using a new tool that allows for online requests, payments, and status updates.
  • Implemented a Child Care Availability Portal to assist essential workers in finding child care.
  • Created various portals to allow Texans to upload documents for TWC staff rather than faxing or mailing.
  • Placed a check-in application for automated check-ins at Workforce Board offices.
  • Started an online payment portal to allow Texans to make payments to TWC online rather than by check.
  • Expanded the use of soft phones to facilitate communication from any location.
  • Infused technology to improve paper-intensive processes.

Digital transformation is not a destination, but a journey. You never really arrive but instead remain in a continuous state of motion and improvement.

Industry Insider: How many employees are in your IT organization? Is it growing?

Hall: We have 256 full-time employees. That is not increasing at this time.

Industry Insider: What is your estimated annual IT budget?

Hall: $130,901,757

Industry Insider: In your 5.5 years at the Workforce Commission, which projects or achievements are you most proud of?

Hall: I’m most proud of how our agency and our IT team responded to the pandemic. In the face of unprecedented demand on our processes, people and systems, our team rose to the challenge. To accommodate record-setting numbers of unemployment benefits claimants, IT quickly doubled mainframe capacity to meet customer demand. Also, we doubled our web server capacity twice during the pandemic to support increased traffic. We leveraged third-party vendors to assist with a failover app that continues to take online claims even if the main UI system was slow or down. IT also assisted our Unemployment Insurance Division with onboarding hundreds of new contractors, temporary employees, and volunteers to address increased claims volume. We moved our primary TWC website to a cloud environment.

All while facing unprecedented web traffic and additional assignments within the UI function, IT supported the shift of agency employees to telework for the health and safety of staff. At the height of the pandemic, close to 88 percent of staff worked remotely, supported by IT’s rapid work to acquire more laptops, cellphones, MiFis, software and equipment to continue providing undisrupted customer service.

We were able to automate processes that had previously been paper processes. We introduced innovative technologies like a chatbot to enhance customer communications. Overall, I’m proud that our team came together as one unit to support our internal customers and all the Texans we serve.

Industry Insider: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors? What should they know about you before they reach out?

Hall: The preference is to be contacted by email. I really value the partnerships that TWC has with our vendor partners. I set aside a couple of hours per week for vendors to meet with me and my IT Leadership Team to promote awareness of what is available in the marketplace. We are required to purchase technology goods and services through Department of Information Resources contracts. Vendors should visit the DIR website to learn more.

Industry Insider: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the tech sector?

Hall: I subscribe to a technology research organization and read articles on a wide variety of topics that are available in that forum. I also attend several industry conferences and tech events each year. Also, I enjoy listening to an occasional Ted Talk and watching major news outlets.

Industry Insider: Personal: Family? Hobbies? Last book read?

My favorite hobby is genealogy. I love researching my family history and helping others do the same. It is amazing to me how many records our ancestors left behind, knowingly or unknowingly, and how many of those are accessible online now. I love researching my own family tree, and I get equally involved when I help friends get started on their own genealogy research. My pleasure reading list also includes some genealogy choices. I am currently wrapping up reading a book called Song of the Shenandoah, which is a historical fiction novel that is based on two of my ancestors. It has been a fun read!

Industry Insider: Do you have a “digital hero,” either in the public or the private sector?

Hall: I can’t think of an individual digital hero, but rather as a company. I spend a lot of my free time working on genealogy, and they have done an amazing job recognizing how people could use technology to research their family history. What people used to have in notebooks, binders, or just stacks of paper can all be kept is an easy-to-use database. I love that when I travel for research, I have everything I discovered about my ancestors right there on my phone. From DNA testing to digitizing vital records and censuses, it took digital heroes in the genealogy space to allow me to sit in my recliner in Austin, Texas, in 2022 and learn about what my ancestors were doing centuries ago.