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Making Government Work

By Governor Pete Ricketts

December 23, 2016

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As 2016 comes to a close, it’s hard to believe that January will mark the halfway point in my term as your Governor.  My administration works daily to make state agencies more effective, more efficient, and more customer-focused.  Over the last two years, we have focused significant resources on transforming an agency that was in dire need of reform when I took the reins of state government.  That agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is critical because it provides vital temporary assistance and a safety net for some of our most vulnerable Nebraskans.  In past years, the agency faced numerous challenges including federal fines, special investigative committees, and failed programming.  With new leadership and intense process improvement initiatives, the agency is now on a new path.  DHHS is focusing on their core mission of helping Nebraskans live better lives.

One of the first areas of DHHS reform under my administration was ACCESSNebraska, home to our call centers for public assistance.  Before I entered office, Nebraskans were waiting on hold for an average of up to 24 minutes to apply for programs through ACCESSNebraska.  The Nebraska Legislature had formed a special investigative oversight committee to look into the backlogs and had called the program a “failure.”

When I took office, my team partnered with ACCESSNebraska staff to identify process improvements that significantly reduced call wait times.  Over the last year, call wait times have averaged below five minutes for 10 out of the last 11 months.  Acknowledging the many improvements, the Legislature announced plans last week to dissolve the oversight committee, citing “increased functionality and productivity.” 

Fixing ACCESSNebraska is important for three reasons.  First, it protects you, the taxpayer.  The previous poor performance of the call centers resulted in the federal government threatening to withdraw $17 million in federal funding.  This move would have forced the state to budget more of your tax dollars for existing services.  With our improved performance, this is no longer a risk.  Second, it means that our most vulnerable citizens are receiving better service in their time of need, and have access to resources to help get them back on their feet.  Third, it also means DHHS can focus more time and resources on improving customer service in other areas.

Since ACCESSNebraska is performing at such a high level now, we are looking to utilize it in new ways to improve customer service in other areas.  This week, we announced improvements to the application process for Nebraskans seeking services for Developmental Disabilities (DD).  DHHS has added the application and other information about DD services to the ACCESSNebraska website, and has reduced the application from 14 pages to three.  These changes mean the time necessary to determine eligibility has been slashed from 69 days to an average of 14 days—a nearly 80 percent reduction. 

We also unveiled WIC Journey, a new system that helps to administer DHHS’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program.  The program serves over 37,000 clients through 13 local WIC agencies delivering services at 106 clinics across the state.  WIC provides healthy food along with nutrition counseling and breastfeeding support to low-income Nebraska families.  These upgrades replaced a 20-year-old computer system, and eliminated the need for 23 paper forms.  In the past, some WIC offices closed down during regular business hours just to process paperwork.  With the new, streamlined system, offices no longer have to shut down to do paperwork, allowing them to focus more on helping women and children.

These are just a few examples of what my administration has accomplished over the last two years because of a relentless focus on reforming DHHS.  There is more to come!  Earlier this year, DHHS CEO Courtney Phillips and I unveiled the agency’s first-ever business plan, and I look forward to sharing with you continued successes as the agency works to execute the initiatives contained in their plan.  We’ll be updating you in the coming months as those initiatives prove successful.  Thank you to Courtney Phillips and her team at DHHS for their work to help Nebraskans live better lives—it truly is a team effort. 

We are working to instill a team mentality focused on improving customer service in all our agencies.  If you have an experience you would like to share, please email my office at pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov or call 402-471-2244.  I want to hear your feedback, so we can continue to make state government more effective and efficient for you!