Legacy systems and paper-based processes have been the foundation of federal case management, but agencies are looking to modernize these frameworks to move to a new, digital model to improve efficiency, reduce errors and quickly deliver services to citizens.
“As with many agencies, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has incurred technical debt over the years, and it has become harder to maintain some legacy systems due to the high cost of maintenance agreements and upgrades,” NARA CIO Sheena Burrell told GovCIO Media & Research.
Agencies also faced new challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic due to closed facilities and reliance on paper-based processes, which created new delays and backlogs. For instance, the backlog at the Military Personnel Records Center grew to exceed 500,000 requests following the onset of the pandemic.
“These unanswered requests are from U.S. veterans and their family members for copies of military service records they need to access benefits earned through military service,” Burrell said. “Other mission areas for NARA had an additional backlog of nearly 230,000 requests from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) for historical claims folders needed to support veterans’ claims for benefits with the VA.”
VBA's Joshua Jacobs, senior advisor and acting under secretary for benefits, noted that the recently signed PACT Act will cause claims backlogs to rise as veterans become eligible for new benefits from their time in service. VBA is focusing on workload management to balance both new and existing claims to optimize the speed at which veterans receive care.
“We will likely see challenges with timeliness because of just the sheer size of the volume. What we're going to do is work to prioritize the claims that are most timely,” Jacobs said in August during a seminar at DAV’s National Convention in Orlando. “I think it's probably going to take several years for us to try to get back to normal once we expect all these claims coming in.”
A joint memo between NARA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), M-19-21, has been a major catalyst to case management modernization, requiring agencies to move toward fully digital records by the end of the year. While Laurence Brewer, NARA's chief records officer, said this date could be pushed back because of delays from the pandemic, the end goal is to reach a “paperless government" soon.
To do this, agencies are turning to digitization, automation and inter-government investment programs like the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF).
How does TMF play a role in digitization?
TMF gives civilian agencies the ability to invest in IT modernization projects through incremental funding and technical expertise. The goal is to provide agencies with additional ways to deliver services to the citizen more quickly, better secure sensitive systems and data and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently.
In May 2022, NARA received over $9 million to upgrade two of its legacy systems to cloud-based platforms: the Archives and Records Centers Information System (ARCIS) and the Case Management and Reporting System (CMRS). These systems were developed in the early 2000s, and the software requires extensive customization, which is labor intensive and not cost-effective to maintain, Burrell noted.
The investment will allow veterans and their families to electronically request and receive their records, while improving responsiveness as the agency transitions toward digital recordkeeping. It will also allow NARA staff to fulfill records requests remotely, fully digitally and securely.
“One benefit of replacing our legacy case management system with a cloud-based platform is cost, a move to a more flexible platform is more cost effective to maintain,” Burrell said. “We will also provide for a more flexible system that will meet the high standards and requirements for cybersecurity of a mission-critical HVA system.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also received TMF funding in 2019 to modernize its Charge and Case Management System project. The agency launched a new system it calls the Agency Records Center (ARC).
Before ARC, EEOC’s charge and case management program ran on an outdated and slow backbone system that relied heavily on proprietary technologies and required the use of precise alphanumeric codes, rather than plain language, to record case information.
“ARC provides many benefits to internal EEOC productivity, provides better customer service for employers and employees, as well as our state agency partners,” an EEOC spokesperson told GovCIO Media & Research. “One example of improved productivity is replacing the manual entry of action codes with plain language, event-driven transactions. ARC’s implementation replaced a system with a steep learning curve for staff, who required a burdensome binder to lookup action codes.”
Where automation comes into play
Automation holds great potential when it comes to case management to streamline workflows, increase efficiency and reduce operational costs. Without automation, case workers and claims adjudicators rely on manual, outdated and inefficient tools to delegate, drive action, follow-up, resolve issues and deliver services to citizens.
“Modernizing [ARCIS and CMRS] would provide for faster case processing, automation, modern features, and capabilities such as HSPD-12 two-factor authentication and integration with NARA’s Identity Provider and Email Tool Suite,” Burrell said. “Modernization would also allow for automated field-level auditing as well as planned, future deployments of data encryption at Rest and in Transit and Data Loss Prevention.”
To reduce backlogs and provide new ways for technicians to securely access records remotely, NARA is creating a virtual desktop interface (VDI) that will enable access to records within the cloud through a VDI. Through a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which presently has over 300,000 digitized military records stored in the cloud as well as 1.5 million records stored in other systems, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) technician will be able to access the digitized records from a remote location for processing.
“Implementing an intelligent automation processing solution is key to NARA’s VDI tool and the goal of reducing the growing backlog of requests,” Burrell said.
Burrell said that NARA also plans to implement an intelligent automation processing solution, which will assist in streamlining operations and expediting processing of Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD214) requests. The solution will determine the type of records that are being requested, search for responsive records from our repository of digitized military personnel records and create a draft response package for an employee to review before sending for digital delivery.
“Automating manual tasks of searching for responsive records and preparing responses will substantially reduce the time to process a veteran’s record request, if the records have been digitized,” Burrell added.
For EEOC, the agency automated several charge management processes within ARC, which will improve data quality and reporting. Automation will also make other advanced technologies easier to integrate in the future.
ARC’s modernization and automation has enabled EEOC staff to spend less time on data entry and has improved data quality and reporting mechanisms to better monitor work, assess progress on key goals, and identify areas that need additional resources.
“Due to the limitations of the legacy platform, our state partners ... previously used non-digital methods to share information, further taxing their limited resources and our own. With the deployment of ARC ... [state partners] enjoy the same automation benefits as the EEOC and have a common platform with the EEOC for sharing information,” the EEOC spokesperson said.
As VA continues to modernize its claims management processes, Jacobs said his unit will rely on a “people, process, technology” approach to reduce workforce burden and streamline claims following the PACT Act's passing.
The agency is also looking to optimize processes, focusing on unnecessary evidence gathering and ways to cut down the amount of time that it takes for the evidence cycle, as well as integrating automation to improve technology and data use to drive a more efficient process that delivers benefits to the veteran more quickly.
“We shouldn't have to require [veterans] to go fill out additional paperwork, bring those papers in, we shouldn't have to go through big piles of paper, piece by piece. We should let the machines do that. Make sure that machines do well what they do, and then humans do well what humans do,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told GovCIO Media & Research last month. “Those are the three things we've done: hired people, we've improved the process itself, and we're automating the process.”
Modernization adds up to improved customer experience
Automating case and claims management processes will help streamline delivery of benefits and services to citizens as well as boost customer experience. Burrell explained that NARA is modernizing public-facing digital services by:
- Incorporating modern user experience methods and measuring tools
- Enhancing customer self-help capability through AI/ML features
- Improving user access by supporting all common access methods regardless of end-user device
- Addressing present performance and service shortfalls like core functions and delivery services
“Putting the requestor at the center of the system interface design is the key to NARA’s modernization plan,” Burrell said.
Before the pandemic, NPRC offered limited opportunities for the public to request records electronically, but the process was complicated, and most requests were still fulfilled on paper. During the pandemic, the NPRC expanded its digital services to the public by improving the web interface and expanding digital delivery of responsive records.
“The current system is a barrier to fully electronic processing of records requests at large volumes,” Burrell noted. “NARA will replace the legacy platform and public-facing website with a modern customer relationship management platform and bring a user-centered design approach to addressing obstacles to users’ needs.”
EEOC noted that these modernization efforts have improved the quality of its services. While citizens previously had 24/7 access to their cases, ARC significantly improved the granularity and quality of data available to constituents.
“This applies to both individuals who filed a charge of discrimination and companies responding to these allegations,” the EEOC spokesperson said. “The parties can now access their case information, add documents, address matters related to the case, and check the case status whenever it is convenient for them.”
What’s on the horizon?
Moving forward, agencies will focus their modernization strategies around digitization standards, data transparency and innovative tools that help sift through massive amounts of case and claims data.
“Like other agencies, NARA is looking to improve our cybersecurity efforts as they relate to the mandates around zero trust architecture,” Burrell said. “We plan to do more in this area as well as digitization and automation.”
Burrell noted that as more information moves to a digital format, NARA will prioritize cybersecurity. She explained that the agency’s legacy platform is so highly configured that it relies on dedicated specialists to monitor, patch and customize to keep it aligned with NARA’s overall cybersecurity plan and standards.
“By replacing it with a FedRAMP-approved cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, the modernized systems will benefit from dedicated monitoring and patching by the cloud provider, which will lower NARA’s overall risk and harden its cybersecurity posture,” Burrell said.
For VA, the agency is looking to hire more staff to accommodate additional claims. McDonough estimated that the agency will hire an additional 2,000 new employees within VBA in the upcoming quarter. VA CIO Kurt DelBene also told GovCIO Media & Research last month that the agency will continue to bolster automated capabilities to alleviate workforce burdens and deliver veteran benefits faster.
"The goal, first and foremost, is to automate the collection of data that allows the claims agent to be more effective in his or her job,” DelBene said.