OMES provides central services during the coronavirus pandemic
By Christa Helfrey
How the changing landscape of Oklahoma state agencies yields better support for Oklahomans
Modern and easy to navigate may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of state government. Fueled by leadership, employee culture, teamwork and a service goal, agencies like the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services are changing that narrative during, and to some extent because of, a pandemic.
While revealing limitations, a crisis also allows opportunity for self-discovery. At OMES, COVID-19 introduced a lot of firsts in a short amount of time – enabling thousands of employees to serve Oklahomans by telework, developing PPE tracking for the entire state, and collaborating with other agencies to modernize state government.
OMES offers information technology, human resources, finance, purchasing, insurance and real estate assistance to all state agencies. However, being a service-driven organization able to support 189 state agencies and municipalities requires smoothing out edges roughened by politics.
OMES Director Steven Harpe said when he arrived in state government from the private sector, it was clear OMES was a regulatory bottleneck, earning a reputation for making it difficult to get things done.
“When I first became deputy director of [OMES Information Services],” Harpe said, “Governor Stitt told me, ‘Fix this. I need it fixed and I need it fixed now. OMES is the biggest problem I have.’ IS was a big part of that problem. While we haven’t completely fixed it, we continue to implement many improvements.”
Since Harpe became director in January, the agency has explored better business practices, reduced its budget by 13%, sought to deepen relationships with other agencies and fostered a “Get Stuff Done” leadership culture within OMES.
“I want OMES to break glass on these old ways of doing business to ensure the most efficient, best-in-class experiences for the agencies and citizens we serve,” Harpe said. “That is the foundation of our ‘Get Stuff Done’ mentality.”
As the coronavirus spread, it was crucial Oklahomans received the state services they needed –COVID-19 testing, PPE acquisition, unemployment claims and safety guidance. However, state government had to find a way to provide these services while developing new processes, addressing communications to 4 million citizens and transitioning from agency buildings to home offices.
OMES didn’t wait for the bat signal. Director Harpe, himself, went to the agencies to ask where OMES could fill in the gaps. In the pandemic’s ever-changing landscape, job descriptions didn’t matter to OMES employees who volunteered in the mailroom at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission; helped answer calls for the governor’s office, OESC and the Oklahoma Department of Health; compiled COVID-19 data into reports for ODH; helped Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office livestream press conferences; and played a role in building call center functions for multiple agencies.
OMES also helped develop PPE tracking for the entire state; ensured state employees had resources needed to work securely at home; and collaborated with agencies to improve business practices and technology that could keep up with the understandably high volume of citizen needs during this time.
“Our framework says we’re here to help,” Harpe said. “We strive to enable agencies to serve Oklahomans as quickly as possible and, while I am here, that will never stop.”
COVID-19 highlighted the shortfalls of the state’s former method of PPE distribution, which was not built with a pandemic in mind. The method did not generate tracking information, making it difficult to know how much PPE was available or on order and nearly impossible to compile massive amounts of data into meaningful information on which leaders could base decisions.
It also meant the state couldn’t provide PPE on a large scale to entities like hospitals, dentist offices and individual practitioners. Trying to maintain crisis velocity resulted in inaccurate data and wasted time and resources, PPE supply chain leader Gino DeMarco said in an email to state leaders on May 1.
To address the problem, OMES Information Services Custom Applications Director Craig Brooks and team developed a system to manage the PPE process, start to finish, and integrate into the state's emergency management resource system to aggregate the total PPE supply.
“It is definitely not perfect and will undoubtedly have failings as we move forward,” DeMarco said. “But it is far, far better than what was there five weeks ago.”
With the help of OMES Central Purchasing, $70 million worth and over 35 million pieces of PPE were processed in just a few weeks.
“OMES may fall down and skin our knees,” Director Harpe said, “but we will get up, dust ourselves off and run to help others as fast as we can. Every scar we get along the way will be worth it.”
When quarantine mandates swept the nation, telework was necessary to keep state employees and their families safe. This came with its own set of problems.
First, not all state employees had portable work stations. Second, employees need VPN connections to access state servers outside of state property and OMES IS didn’t have enough bandwidth to support so many remote employees. Third, without a way to ensure security on employees’ personal Wi-Fi networks, the state’s information could become vulnerable.
OMES had to quickly collaborate internally and externally to make mass telework a reality so Oklahomans didn’t lose access to essential services at a time when they most needed them.
With the world trying to equip its employees to work from home, tech vendors got an influx of laptop requests, OMES IS Director of Outreach Carissa Terry said. Three OMES divisions – IS, Finance and Central Purchasing – worked together make sure state teams got to the front of global supply chains.
“IS’ Mission Support team and our IT strategists worked closely to prioritize the laptops for the various agencies and then tracked the orders to ensure we were still being competitive in the supply chain,” Terry said. “Finance and CP helped expedite processes so we didn’t miss the opportunity to get more hardware. We secured about 2,000 laptops in those early days.”
Once OMES acquired the laptops, the agency had to find a way to get them to social distancing state employees.
OMES IS launched, ahead of schedule, Intelligent Lockers to offer employees and service techs a contactless way to securely and conveniently drop off and pick up devices at any one of six Oklahoma locations.
About 87% of OMES has teleworked at some point through COVID-19, and that percentage is higher for some agencies. With more employees than ever working remotely, the state’s IT company had to expand its server bandwidth – a lot.
During March 14-24, OMES increased VPN capacity from 2,500 to 25,000, allowing for record numbers of VPN connections. In addition to VPN capacity expansion, OMES offers comprehensive O365 training to encourage state employees to use Office 365 suite, which doesn’t need a server connection and affords more security.
“O365 for government is super secure and meets all the typical compliance frameworks,” Terry said, “to the point that we even migrated our public safety and defense agencies over to O365 so they could reap those benefits and we could open up the VPN connections for folks that really need them – people using HIPAA, FERPA data, etc.”
IS also implemented Mimecast, a secure cloud-based email manager, to make threats more visible to the security team.
“In July, 45% of our inbound emails to our state networks contained malware,” Terry said. “That can take down infrastructure.”
If done well, telework could be a sustainable environment for much of state government, even after the pandemic, allowing state agencies to see consolidated workspace savings.
Before COVID-19, OMES divisions were housed in four buildings. Now, with most employees continuing telework, OMES plans to reduce its footprint and consolidate office space into two main locations. This move alone could save the state over $500,000 annually.
Agency collaboration and innovation
If COVID-19 is “the bad guy” in the current world story, Oklahoma state agencies make up one group of protagonists using their specific abilities to protect citizens. Agencies have had to eliminate barriers and join forces to battle a common enemy, building the strategy mid-fight.
As Oklahoma’s central services agency, OMES rushed to support its partners during this crisis. Whether it was developing time reporting codes to track COVID-19-related projects and ensure state employees were paid on time; equipping agencies with and training them on updated technology; or setting up 24/7 COVID-19 call centers, OMES stepped in where needed.
“There must be solidarity around our belief that we’re all in this time for a reason,” Director Harpe said. “That reason is to make sure OMES serves in the best way and enables work to get done.”
The former state government bottleneck is doing everything it can to become a value-added partner that enables agencies to accomplish their missions. Department of Human Services Business Process Engineer Austin Marshall said his agency already had plans to move toward telework, but when the pandemic hit, OMES and DHS quickly collaborated to get 6,500 DHS employees fully teleworking in a matter of weeks.
“We’re about to finish two months ahead of schedule in the middle of a pandemic,” Marshall said. “We would not have been able to train our own people and give them the administrative rights to deploy these devices without the flexibility and initiative Director Harpe seems to be communicating down the chain of command over there.”
State government is not notorious for finishing projects ahead of schedule, but getting a large agency like DHS equipped to work from home is just one example of a timeline shortened considerably by crisis.
“All these changes have been fast,” Director Harpe said. “With all the unfortunate things about COVID-19, we have to focus on the benefits. In a four- to six-month time frame, the state has accomplished things it couldn’t do in four to six years before.”
Like many agencies, OMES is using critical thinking necessary for the pandemic to plan projects like client feedback surveys, an employee counsel, calibration and leadership programs, and CARES Act funding.
In January 2021, OMES plans to implement a process to gain client feedback. Using electronic surveys, OMES will learn what its clients think it is doing well and what it needs to improve. The agency will track this feedback and use it to fuel an improvement process to drive client experience.
“OMES will be shaped by the voices we serve instead of the voices in power – including me,” Harpe said.
One project already underway is OMES’ Get Stuff Done Podcast, where Director Harpe and Caden Cleveland, the director of Legislative and Public Affairs at OMES, invite influential Oklahomans to discuss career experiences, crisis leadership, current projects and unique perspectives. Previous guests were DHS Director Justin Brown, Oklahoma first lady Sarah Stitt, state COO John Budd, Oklahoma Secretary of Public Safety Chip Keating, Health Commissioner Lance Frye and Secretary of Digital Transformation and Administration David Ostrowe.
“OMES is now this platform,” Harpe said. “A platform for speech, a platform for ideas, a platform for servanthood. Our goal is to be your partner. After we help you get where you want to go, we’ll sit back and help you highlight all the amazing things you’re doing for the State of Oklahoma.”
Director Harpe argues that technology alone is not the answer to modernize state government, but that agencies need modern business practices first. He encourages every agency to hire a chief innovation officer to improve their business practices.
“Organize your top business practices, redesign those, bring them to OMES and we’ll help you quickly find available modern services.”
All of this modernization is with Oklahoma citizens in mind. DHS Deputy Chief of Strategic Engagement Keili McEwen said OMES has helped DHS bring in a lot of new technology it didn’t have under the previous administration. The new technology paired with DHS Director Justin Brown’s business practices has allowed the agency to work on meeting clients where they want to be met.
“It’s going to make us more efficient as an agency in responding to the needs of our constituents,” McEwen said. “It’s also going to make our public’s interface with our agency more agile. There are lots of benefits to our agency, to the public, to the taxpayer and most importantly, to the people that we serve.”
Director Harpe attributes OMES’ momentum with its workforce. Nothing happens without OMES employees’ drive and willingness to help.
“While I help instigate these projects,” he said, “I have amazing people achieving all this. I really care about what people think. That’s the No. 1 thing for me.”
“The direction OMES is moving under the leadership of Steve Harpe has me very excited and optimistic about the agency's future,” Sen. Roger Thompson said. “The work they've done to support other agencies during the coronavirus pandemic has shown again the essential value they bring to state services as a whole.”
Despite past shortcomings and criticism, OMES is joining with other agencies to cultivate a culture of teamwork, innovation and service-first mentality that Oklahoma needs. As an organization made up of multiple companies, OMES is an example of where state government could be moving – toward unified agencies working together to drive cohesive results, deliver elevated customer service and “Get Stuff Done.”
Oklahomans deserve it.
About the author
Christa Helfrey creates and manages original content for all OMES social media platforms, with an emphasis on written and visual communication. She assists with the research, writing, editing and distribution of OMES internal and external publications for grammar, spelling, consistency and OMES branding compliance.