A host of benefits

2008 GCN Award winner: Labor's GovBenefits gives agencies a common home for eligibility tools<@VM>SIDEBAR: System stands on a solid foundation

ORGANIZATION: Labor
Department.


PROJECT: GovBenefits
e-government project.


CHALLENGE: Give people
a one-stop Web site to
check their eligibility for
government benefits while
ensuring that other agencies
don't duplicate eligibility
screening tools.


SOLUTION: Turn off the
Social Security
Administration's duplicative
benefits eligibility online
system by having SSA
migrate the entire functionality
to GovBenefits.


IMPACT: SSA will save the
annual cost of systems
maintenance and any technology
upgrades that would
have been required in the
future. The new
GovBenefits-hosted SSA
eligibility tool has had
430,000 online visits since
March, with a monthly
average of 124,000 visits.


DURATION: GovBenefits
was one of the original
President's Management
Agenda e-government projects
launched in 2002.
GovBenefits and SSA
signed an interagency
agreement to migrate SSA's
online eligibility determination
functionality to
GovBenefits in summer
2007 and disconnected
SSA's in-house tool in
March.


COST: The annual budget
is about $4.5 million.

A PERSON CLICKING THROUGH the eligibility
questionnaire at the Social Security
Administration's online benefits screening
Web site isn't likely to think twice about the
underlying computing architecture.




The site, best.ssa.gov ' the 'best' stands for
Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool ' is meant
to be intuitively easy. Users enter basic data,
mostly by marking
the most appropriate
response to a
question.

But for the people
running the site, the
computing architecture
is a pivotal
component. For one
thing, they want to
avoid redundant
systems across different
departments.
Systems duplication
is an easy trap to fall
into but one that
the President's Management
Agenda has attempted to combat
since it institutionalized multiagency e-government
initiatives in 2002.

That's why SSA's eligibility Web site is in
fact a Labor Department-managed tool simply
wearing an SSA logo. It's what Labor's
GovBenefits e-government project calls a
customized connection.

'Nobody needs to build pre-screening tools
for their own agency and address their own
particular group of citizens,' said Curtis
Turner, GovBenefits program manager. Gov-
Benefits can do it for every agency, via a customized
connection into its technology environment.
When users type in the best.ssa.gov
URL, a GovBenefits-hosted page appears.

Agencies that transfer their online benefits
eligibility tool entirely to GovBenefits gain a
low-cost solution, Turner said. 'They don't
have to integrate anything through their
back end, they don't have to reinvent a rules
engine, they don't have to reinvent any infrastructure,'
he said. Agencies still handle their
own content through a GovBenefits-provided
content management system.

GovBenefits was one of the original 24 egovernment
projects launched by the PMA
in 2002. From the start, GovBenefits was
meant to be the authoritative place to check
eligibility for government
assistance.
More than 30 million
people have visited
GovBenefits.gov since
its launch in 2002.
It's also available in
Spanish. On Sept. 2,
the day after Hurricane
Gustav made
landfall, online visits
to GovBenefits.gov
reached 23,718.

When it was first
turned on, users
could search for benefits
information originating
from 55 federal programs. That was
no small amount of change ' the collective
value of those programs was more than $1
trillion. But 55 now seems like a small number.
The Web site features more than 390
federal programs ' including Social Security
benefits, which are also integrated directly
into the GovBenefits site ' and 610 stateadministered
programs.

As the program has matured, its scope has
increased.

'I've seen it over the years grow,' said
Patrick Pizzella, Labor's assistant secretary
for administration and management. Gov-
Benefits officials realized that they didn't
want to build a site that exacerbated the government's
duplicated systems problem.

'We want to have a site that eliminated
some of the redundancies out there,' Pizzella said. As they examined the federal
landscape, GovBenefits officials realized
that Social Security Administration's
in-house online eligibility tool was
redundant.

They 'requested that SSA migrate the
functionality to their site and turn off our
in-house application,' which SSA finally
did in March, Jo Armstrong, SSA associate
commissioner of the Office of Electronic
Services, said in written answers.
'The intent is to save taxpayer dollars,'
Armstrong wrote.

'It's a good example of cooperation
among federal agencies,' Pizzella said.
The Veterans Affairs Department plans
to launch a customized connection Web
site later this year, and GovBenefits is
also working with the Federal Emergency
Management Agency. The Education Department
used GovBenefits to create
GovLoans.gov, a one-stop portal for federal
loans information.

GovBenefits pays for the infrastructure,
except when an agency has extraordinary
requirements, Turner said.
The Social Security Administration did,
in fact, have some extraordinary requirements,
so they provided additional
funding.
From a technical perspective,
the first GovBenefits
Web site was launched rapidly
' within just 96 working
days in 2002.




'Like any other Web initiative
that took place in
the early 2000s, times
have changed,' said Curtis
Turner, GovBenefits program
manager. 'While the
front end still serves the
same purpose, the back
end has changed to become
far more reliable.'

These days, GovBenefits is
a component-based architecture
comprising four
modules: a Web portal application,
a Web server, a database
for content storage
and a Web-enabled content
management system.

'The server, the portal
application, the database
and the content management
system all are linked
together for a fully capable
Web site,' Turner said.

The portal application is a
multitiered structure that
decouples the presentation
from business logic so agencies
such as the Social
Security Administration can
customize the appearance
of their GovBenefits-hosted
application. The portal uses
BEA WebLogic 8.1 SP5 on a
Sun Solaris 10 platform.

The portal's rules engine
was built in-house, Turner
said. 'Search engine technology
wouldn't let us do
what we wanted to do,' he
said. 'It was most expeditious
to create our own eligibility
screening tool.'

The hosting is done via
the Agriculture
Department's National
Information Technology
Center in a highly available,
fault-tolerant environment,
GovBenefits officials said.

The content management
module uses Vignette CMS
7.3 commercial software
that lets government program
content managers
enter benefits information.
The workflow can be tailored
per user. Security is
managed via internal
Lightweight Directory
Access Protocol, where
users, groups and privileges
are assigned and
maintained. An Oracle
database interfaces with
the CMS.

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