LA’s Technology of the Commons

Michael Sylvester leads the IT team at LA County Department of Public Social Services, where he’s using the latest in analytics capabilities to drive efficiency.

The phrase, printed on lanyards and the badges clipped to those lanyards, looked like something that belonged in a Fortune 500 company or a Forbes conference: “Focus on the customer.” The people wearing those lanyards worked for neither. That phrase was the slogan of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, and the mind-set that Michael Sylvester wanted his team to keep in mind. People who develop technology, Sylvester says, have a tendency to focus on building a product rather than how that product is going to be used. It’s absolutely crucial, whether you’re operating in the public or private sector, to keep the customer in mind.

“We realized that many people don’t have scanners, so our website wasn’t as convenient as we thought for submitting documents. But many people are carrying a built-in scanner in their pocket every day: the camera on their smartphone.”

In his role as department CIO and assistant director at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), Sylvester has fostered close collaboration between teams that focuses on ample, honest feedback. That approach has created an environment that stimulates the creation of great technology solutions, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recent projects launched by his department have been honored by the American Public Human Services Association, the American Society for Public Administration, and the Center for Digital Government, among others.

DPSS’s mobile application, available on the Google Play store and Apple app store, had its soft launch in mid-2014 and began formal marketing later that year. DPSS had already offered the public a website portal in which people could request services; verify benefit issuances; and submit formal paperwork, verification forms, and other needed documents, such as pay stubs. Now citizens can do the same thing on a smartphone or iPad. “We realized that many people don’t have scanners, so our website wasn’t as convenient as we thought for submitting documents,” Sylvester says. “But many people are carrying a built-in scanner in their pocket every day: the camera on their smartphone.”

The DPSS Mobile App

Challenge

Historically, customers have had to either mail or go into one of the Department of Public Social Services’ offices to provide periodic reporting and verification documents to continue their benefits. This meant possibly having to arrange transportation to the office during regular business hours, passing through security, and waiting in line to be seen just to drop off a document.

Solution

Sylvester’s team developed and implemented a mobile app, available in the Apple App store and Google Play store, that allows customers to utilize the camera in their smartphone to capture an image of their periodic reporting and verification documents and automatically upload them to their case. This helps users stay in compliance with program rules and sustain their benefits, avoiding a potential gap in aid. Based on Google Analytics, more than 65 percent of the department’s customers now access their portal with smartphones and other mobile devices.

Results

The app gives customers the opportunity to provide the department with required information in a timely manner at a time that is more convenient for them and more supportive of their needs to pursue self-sufficiency. DPSS can now offer more self-service functionality to customers, who may not have access to computers themselves but do have access to smartphones.

Users can take photos of the documents they need to submit and upload them using the mobile application. They can also check account balances in the same way someone using a bank app would be able to. “Any Apple or Android user can access it, so the mobile app now reaches more than half of our current online users,” Sylvester explains. “It already had begun taking off after the soft launch, and we think it’s going to continue to grow in popularity.”

Another project developed under Sylvester’s management won more awards than any other program in the department’s history. The Data Mining Solution Fraud Framework for Government uses predictive analytics and historical data to create statistical models that can sort through child-care case files and identify situations that may be more likely to involve fraudulent activity. Each case is provided a fraud risk score, which is a scorecard-style rating system that ranks cases by their probability of containing fraud. “This doesn’t replace our investigators in any way,” Sylvester emphasizes. “It helps them do their jobs more effectively. It helps them prioritize which child-care providers and child-care recipient cases need to be analyzed more thoroughly.”

The framework isn’t perfect, and Sylvester and his team are working to reduce false positives. A probability of fraud is not a guarantee, but it highlights certain cases for investigators to examine more closely and prioritize their workload. It can also track and match data between hundreds of data elements that would be much more difficult or nearly impossible for an investigator to decipher without the tools, such as connections between individuals, like a single phone number or former address that could hint at a larger conspiracy ring. “Those links wouldn’t show up in any other kind of report, but they are visibly displayed for the investigator with this tool,” Sylvester says. “This has led to many new coconspirators being added to existing cases and new cases being opened that would otherwise not [have] been discovered.”

Technologies like this are in high demand in Sylvester’s department, which provides solutions for everything from providing cash assistance to employment services to homeless services to health-care eligibility and coverage. To prioritize where to invest in technology innovation, the department creates a strategic plan three years out that outlines what should be accomplished each year. Sylvester has led the development of this process to help identify key strategic IT projects annually.

This approach is the result of the mind-set Sylvester developed in his twelve years in the private sector, took to Riverside, and continues to embody in Los Angeles County: knowing the customer and delivering solutions that help overcome their business challenges. Local governmental organizations serve a diverse population with varying needs, so knowing how to develop IT solutions and tools that a majority of the population can and would be willing to use is key. “That sometimes gets lost for some CIOs,” Sylvester says. “They have their own priorities, initiatives, and projects, but don’t consider whether those projects are actually creating necessary value for their customers.