Benefits portal attracts new partners

Who's in charge

Patrick Pizzella


Laura Callahan

Deputy CIO

Theresa O'Malley

Executive Officer

Daniel P. Murphy

Director, Procurement Services Center

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'We get almost 50,000 hits a week now, and 10,000 visitors continue on to the benefits programs' sites.'

'George Wollner

Olivier Douliery

The Labor Department's portal is growing by leaps and bounds.

The site has added 30 programs to its roster since it went live in April, and Labor expects to add 20 to 40 a month for the rest of the year.

The portal, one of the 24 Quicksilver e-government projects highlighted by the Office of Management and Budget, is rapidly maturing to achieve the administration's goal of unifying benefits programs online.

State and local benefits agencies, including Los Angeles County's, have asked about adding their programs to the portal, said program manager George Wollner, Labor's chief of technology measurement and strategic initiatives. Developing the capability to accept applications through the portal is 'down the road, about a year out,' he predicted last month at the E-Gov 2002 conference in Washington.

GovBenefits, which lets users check their eligibility for benefits by answering a few questions, began operating with 55 benefits programs at 10 federal agencies.
'We get almost 50,000 hits a week now, and 10,000 visitors continue on to the benefits programs' sites,' Wollner said.

Building GovBenefits cost around $1 million, he said, nearly all of it coming from Labor. The department's partner agencies provided technical expertise and other resources.

'We took chances,' Wollner said. 'There was no identified funding for this project, so we took Labor Department money.'

The portal initially provided access to information on $1 trillion in federal benefits programs, a figure that increased by $50 billion when it added the 30 new programs.

'We took a very aggressive approach,' Wollner said. His team set a goal of bringing up a portal in 100 working days, from December 2001 to the launch on April 29.

'We had a lot of setbacks and resistance,' Wollner said. 'If you want to create a partnership across agencies, the key thing to remember is that your partners have a tremendous disincentive to working with you.'

Federal executives usually put their own agencies' priorities first, he said. 'We were dealing with a lot of people who were very busy and then this was added to their inbox.'

Many agencies at first failed to respond to the GovBenefits team's requests for information about their benefits programs. To spur response, the team launched an electronic newsletter targeted to political leaders at potential partner agencies.

Publicizing the status of the project within the government via an e-mail newsletter led political appointees to demand action from the partner agencies. In other cases, Labor identified midlevel staff members at partner agencies who became advocates for the project, Wollner said.

Embarrassing success

After one stormy meeting with a group of federal executives, Wollner said one agency official told him, 'We need you to fail. If you succeed, how will we explain that we have not been able to do this after trying for the last two years?'

GovBenefits overcame resistance by showing its value to potential partners, recognizing supporters, achieving results quickly, taking risks and applying pressure, Wollner said. was written in Java Server Pages, Servlets, Javascript and HTML. Data resides in an Oracle8i database. The application server sends Hypertext Transfer Protocol requests to an Apache Web Server.

The governmentwide FirstGov portal provides hosting for GovBenefits. The application and Web server run on a server farm of Sun Enterprise 420R servers under Solaris.

The system uses a data and content collection tool to group, categorize and validate information from Labor's partner agencies. The system then enters the data into the portal database where the applications access it.

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