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State Commissioner Shares Perspective on IT Achievements and Challenges

She elaborated on how the agency must be responsive not only to citizen stakeholders but federal oversight as well.

An image of a doctor overlayed with digital symbols including a dollar sign, a computer, an apple and a Wi-Fi signal.
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Three agency heads spoke during a recent Texas IT Leadership Forum panel about their celebratory moments and challenges and the constant change of pace for technology teams.

Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) commented on a range of topics, from a hybrid workforce to the continuing work on pandemic response.

Cecile Erwin Young.
“Technology, as everyone has said, it’s really essential,” Young said. “I’ve been around the Legislature since 1987, so I remember when members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance [committees] used to agonize over whether agencies would get copiers. We cannot do our business without IT. Cybersecurity, modernization, every single solitary thing that we do is dependent on IT systems.”

Young reiterated that HHSC is not only the largest agency in the state, but potentially the largest state agency in the nation. It has about 38,000 employees, she said, and the agency “supports 120 websites, 376 applications, and 183 of those are mission-critical, so our IT is involved all the time.”

IT supports all levels of technology interactions:
  • Texas residents enrolling in health or social services
  • Agency HR managing payroll, and of course intricacies
  • Managing essential data systems

Regarding pandemic response, which is governed by the federal government, Young said HHSC has continued to be flexible as new rules and requirements are released.

Young shared that the IT team has “worked diligently on trying to get us ready for the end of the public health emergency. There are many things that are associated with our eligibility systems that have to be taken care of.”

“Our agency IT staff have had to be very responsive. A couple of things I think have come out of IT, out of the public health emergency, and what we’ve seen over the last couple of years [is that] telehealth has been a huge issue. IT has allowed access particularly in rural areas for health care and so again, completely supported by our IT systems,” she said.

After a discussion on hybrid and remote work, Young talked about the procurement process for IT and challenges that come with a biennial budget and appropriations.

“Procurement is a huge issue. And again, this is not a reflection at all on HHSC IT; it’s just part of the process. … That is an area of concern because when we have these big IT projects, it’s really difficult to get them done in a short amount of time. And getting or not getting the appropriations in the right order.

“IT systems don’t lend themselves well to a two-year appropriation process. I don’t know the answer. I will tell you: It’s not that I know the answer, but I do think that House Bill 4018 is a step in the right direction. I’m very excited.”

The bill created the Technology Improvement and Modernization Fund during the 87th Legislature, which put $200 million into it. This money from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds has been put into the Investment in Information Technology Improvement, Oversight Committee’s hands for distribution.

“I do think I’d like to see that supersized,” Young continued. “I think that there needs to be some way for the Legislature ... to approve an IT modernization or system that we need or anyone else needs. And then they go to this fund, so that it is not as dependent on the two-year funding cycle.”

Young continued by saying she hoped work could be done in upcoming legislative sessions to try to modernize IT procurement.

“Last session, we really tried to prioritize those things that would break. We have — going back to the legacy systems — we have so many things that are coming to the end of the line.

“We have so many priorities,” Young continued. “And one of the things that we found since last session really is we’ve had to reprioritize things constantly because of things primarily at the federal level, not only at the federal level, but we are spending an enormous amount of time right now.”

“But again, tyranny of the urgent, and because we’re talking about so much in federal funding, that really drives a lot of our prioritization.”

The IT Leadership Forum is a Government Technology event. Government Technology is a sister publication of Industry Insider — Texas, and their parent company is e.Republic.

Continuing coverage of the IT Leadership Forum will include how various agencies are approaching the hybrid workforce, modernization and bringing technologists to the table.
Rae D. DeShong is a Dallas-based e.Republic staff writer and has worked at The Dallas Morning News and as a community college administrator.