Why I Left You: A Love Letter to State Government

Lightbulb drawn on chalkboard to represent an idea

What is the one idea that haunts you and won’t let go? 

In December 2018, after the flurry of activity from Code4PA, I applied to work for the Wolf Administration.  The cover letter I included referenced pie.

…I was not hired.

But I was in the middle of a chain of events leading to today:  a job where I can partner with the state government, build value with data, and engage with citizens of Pennsylvania.  I’ve described it to friends as “the perfect intersection of data and helping people.”

Let me back up.  I had a great job.

I worked for a large public pension (retirement) fund. Every year we processed around eight to ten thousand retirements, though the overwhelming majority of requests arrived during the summer months of June, July, and August.  Those months were costly in terms of overtime and staff burnout, and as a result service levels suffered.  Baby boomers and looming pension legislation led to spikes in volumes that surpassed our processing capacity.

Our members shouldn’t have to wait for months to get payments. We couldn’t continue as we had been.

What we knew for sure:  older members with higher amounts of service retired in greater numbers than others (that’s kind of the point of a retirement plan).  But after reviewing our population and accounting for the obvious, people were still coming out of the woodwork.

We started asking better questions:

Why wait until our members tell us they’re retiring? Is there a way to shift the bulk of work to a lower-volume time? Given that we’ve been “in business” for over a hundred years, shouldn’t we know better than our members what factors influence retirement? Is there a way to predict which members will retire in the next year?  What population doesn’t retire at an obvious time, and are we under-serving them?

How can we harness our downtime and provide better service?

Asking the right questions plus proactively directing our daily work led to a drastic reduction in overtime spend (under 6 figures for the first time in 10+ years) and reduced wait time for our members.  The one metric they care about:  when do I get my money?  Previously, under ideal circumstances, it took six to eight weeks before a check was issued.  Could you go without a paycheck for a month?  Two?  Me neither. 

Now it takes just 16 days.  Or, just a little over a single pay cycle for most people.    

I met members of the system at the grocery store, on airplanes, on soccer fields, and I was so proud to tell them how hard we worked to make things better.  “It’s a great place to work and we are committed to customer service!”  When the Office of Administration asked to use my career trajectory as a recruitment tool I was honored.  It was settled:  I would serve out another 25 years and retire from state service. 

Working for a retirement system will do that to you.

But something persisted in the back of my mind.  Looking at our data and developing insights directly led to better service.  Books like Predictive Analytics and Infonomics:  I couldn’t get enough.  But the incremental successes were hard-won and slow to accumulate.  

I wanted to do more, and we just weren’t ready.  I had to find another path.  What if I asked better questions again?   

Today the Governor announced a new, progressive, exciting direction:  Focusing on customer service.  There’s the strong, forward-thinking government I believe in.

Pennsylvania state government, I love you.  You’re close enough to have a real impact on people’s quality of life.  You will make a difference.  When I talk to citizens they invariably say, everyone I worked with tried really hard to help me.  We’re making it the norm, rather than a pleasant surprise.

What if you searched your state government website and got what you needed in just a few clicks?

What if your state government made exchanging payments easy and used whatever method you already like?

What if instead of waiting at an office, you held your place in line digitally?

What if your government met you where you are?

Now that I work for a private company, I am unrestricted by the status quo.  I am free to innovate and pose big, tough questions, with time and resources allotted to this work.  When something is not working, we can develop and enact improvements faster than anyone from within could.

As a unique partner to the state government, now I’m at the forefront of what good government can be.  And I couldn’t be happier.

Thank you, NIC, for adopting this data weirdo.

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