A host of benefits

The Labor Department's GovBenefits site eliminates duplication among agencies offering federal benefits by hosting agencies' online eligibility tools.

A PERSON CLICKING THROUGH the eligibilityquestionnaire at the Social SecurityAdministration's online benefits screeningWeb site isn't likely to think twice about theunderlying computing architecture.The site, best.ssa.gov ' the 'best' stands forBenefits Eligibility Screening Tool ' is meantto be intuitively easy. Users enter basic data,mostly by markingthe most appropriateresponse to aquestion.But for the peoplerunning the site, thecomputing architectureis a pivotalcomponent. For onething, they want toavoid redundantsystems across differentdepartments.Systems duplicationis an easy trap to fallinto but one thatthe President's ManagementAgenda has attempted to combatsince it institutionalized multiagency e-governmentinitiatives in 2002.That's why SSA's eligibility Web site is infact a Labor Department-managed tool simplywearing an SSA logo. It's what Labor'sGovBenefits e-government project calls acustomized connection.'Nobody needs to build pre-screening toolsfor their own agency and address their ownparticular group of citizens,' said CurtisTurner, GovBenefits program manager. Gov-Benefits can do it for every agency, via a customizedconnection into its technology environment.When users type in the best.ssa.govURL, a GovBenefits-hosted page appears.Agencies that transfer their online benefitseligibility tool entirely to GovBenefits gain alow-cost solution, Turner said. 'They don'thave to integrate anything through theirback end, they don't have to reinvent a rulesengine, they don't have to reinvent any infrastructure,'he said. Agencies still handle theirown content through a GovBenefits-providedcontent management system.GovBenefits was one of the original 24 egovernmentprojects launched by the PMAin 2002. From the start, GovBenefits wasmeant to be the authoritative place to checkeligibility for governmentassistance.More than 30 millionpeople have visitedGovBenefits.gov sinceits launch in 2002.It's also available inSpanish. On Sept. 2,the day after HurricaneGustav madelandfall, online visitsto GovBenefits.govreached 23,718.When it was firstturned on, userscould search for benefitsinformation originatingfrom 55 federal programs. That wasno small amount of change ' the collectivevalue of those programs was more than $1trillion. But 55 now seems like a small number.The Web site features more than 390federal programs ' including Social Securitybenefits, which are also integrated directlyinto the GovBenefits site ' and 610 stateadministeredprograms.As the program has matured, its scope hasincreased.'I've seen it over the years grow,' saidPatrick Pizzella, Labor's assistant secretaryfor administration and management. Gov-Benefits officials realized that they didn'twant to build a site that exacerbated the government'sduplicated systems problem.'We want to have a site that eliminatedsome of the redundancies out there,' Pizzella said. As they examined the federallandscape, GovBenefits officials realizedthat Social Security Administration'sin-house online eligibility tool wasredundant.They 'requested that SSA migrate thefunctionality to their site and turn off ourin-house application,' which SSA finallydid in March, Jo Armstrong, SSA associatecommissioner of the Office of ElectronicServices, said in written answers.'The intent is to save taxpayer dollars,'Armstrong wrote.'It's a good example of cooperationamong federal agencies,' Pizzella said.The Veterans Affairs Department plansto launch a customized connection Website later this year, and GovBenefits isalso working with the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency. The Education Departmentused GovBenefits to createGovLoans.gov, a one-stop portal for federalloans information.GovBenefits pays for the infrastructure,except when an agency has extraordinaryrequirements, Turner said.The Social Security Administration did,in fact, have some extraordinary requirements,so they provided additionalfunding.XXXSPLITXXX-From a technical perspective,the first GovBenefitsWeb site was launched rapidly' within just 96 workingdays in 2002.'Like any other Web initiativethat took place inthe early 2000s, timeshave changed,' said CurtisTurner, GovBenefits programmanager. 'While thefront end still serves thesame purpose, the backend has changed to becomefar more reliable.'These days, GovBenefits isa component-based architecturecomprising fourmodules: a Web portal application,a Web server, a databasefor content storageand a Web-enabled contentmanagement system.'The server, the portalapplication, the databaseand the content managementsystem all are linkedtogether for a fully capableWeb site,' Turner said.The portal application is amultitiered structure thatdecouples the presentationfrom business logic so agenciessuch as the SocialSecurity Administration cancustomize the appearanceof their GovBenefits-hostedapplication. The portal usesBEA WebLogic 8.1 SP5 on aSun Solaris 10 platform.The portal's rules enginewas built in-house, Turnersaid. 'Search engine technologywouldn't let us dowhat we wanted to do,' hesaid. 'It was most expeditiousto create our own eligibilityscreening tool.'The hosting is done viathe AgricultureDepartment's NationalInformation TechnologyCenter in a highly available,fault-tolerant environment,GovBenefits officials said.The content managementmodule uses Vignette CMS7.3 commercial softwarethat lets government programcontent managersenter benefits information.The workflow can be tailoredper user. Security ismanaged via internalLightweight DirectoryAccess Protocol, whereusers, groups and privilegesare assigned andmaintained. An Oracledatabase interfaces withthe CMS.

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.






















































































































































































































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