BenefitsEmployee Engagement

All Together Now

Unifying Georgia’s atomized HR departments took brains—and leadership from the top.

By Russ Banhan
A year ago, the HR organization for the state of Georgia was effectively 85 separate HR organizations, each representing a different state agency, such as the various boards of education, the court system, multiple library boards, and the departments of correction, motor vehicles and transportation, to cite just a handful.

The technology used to deliver HR functions to the state’s 150,000 employees was close to 20 years old—a veritable museum piece. Nearly 100 different pay centers administered payroll to employees. Almost all HR processes were manual, with fax machines the prevailing technology. Employees wanting a glimpse of their Total Rewards benefits package were handed an Excel spreadsheet.

When Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue, a successful business entrepreneur and former veterinarian who assumed office in 2003, took a look at the duplicative, antiquated, and manual system in September 2009, he had but one thought: Fix it.

The “fix,” part of the governor’s “Commission for a New Georgia” initiative, required engaging Hewitt Associates to streamline the state’s antediluvian HR service delivery systems and enhance employee self-service capabilities. The initial task was presented to Steve Stevenson and Marion Frederick, Georgia’s commissioner of state personnel administration and assistant commissioner of compensation and benefits, respectively. Fortunately, both had extensive private sector backgrounds and experience with more sophisticated HR systems. “Gov. Perdue wanted us to bring more private sector-type procedures to the system, especially a more centralized way of coordinating benefits,” says Stevenson. “And he had a sharp timeline for all this to happen—by the end of his second term or within a year.”

On Track Fast
Given the steep challenges, that the state pulled off the feat ahead of time (the system went live in April), is a credit to Stevenson, Frederick, and Hewitt—retained to develop the new HR infrastructure essentially from scratch. Today, Georgia employees can access a self-service employee portal to take a snapshot of their 401(k) and other retirement benefits, as well as flexible, voluntary benefits such as vision, dental, life, disability, long-term care, and legal insurance. The state has made employee access to benefits so easy that the portal has earned its rather unpronounceable name GaBreeze (the “Ga” being Georgia and “breeze” . . . well, you get the point). They can log onto Hewitt’s proprietary “Your Benefits” from the office or at home, if they prefer.
Georgia’s benefit coordinators at the 85 separate agencies also have their own portal, through which they can enter new hire information, review and change employee data, view reports and share files, and attend to other administrative transactions. The site’s name is less fun but a lot easier to say—Employer Web Site.

Best of all, what was once a hodgepodge of systems and manual processes has been distilled into a centralized, seamless, high-tech HR outsourcing marvel that other states envy and are trying to emulate. “We’re getting calls all the time about it,” says Frederick. “It really is something.”

Not only did the state deliver on the Commission for a New Georgia initiative, it met the governor’s exacting deadline, which puts a smile on the face of the two-term Gov. Perdue, who says that he, like other state employees, routinely accesses the GaBreeze portal to glimpse his retirement and other benefits. “Outsourcing the benefits administration function is enabling the state of Georgia to address technology challenges and enterprise-wide business needs, while delivering a high-quality customer experience to our employees,” Gov. Perdue says.

Square One
Of course, a year ago no one could have predicted that the state’s HR service delivery systems would be what they are today. When Perdue took office, he launched the Commission for a New Georgia to make Georgia the best-managed state in America. The Commission is a private-sector council of top-level business and professional executives from all over the state. Their mission was to bring fresh eyes and ideas to state operations and services, creating approaches that would allow them to function more efficiently and effectively, while working better for citizens and state personnel.

During the past seven years, the Commission has challenged bureaucracy-style “business as usual” protocols, advancing best practices and technologies to streamline government, reduce expenses, and increase efficiencies. HR, given its old school delivery model, was a prime target. “We had at the time 165 employees within the state personnel administration, which delivers HR functions for the 85 separate state agencies, although each of these agencies essentially administers its own HR transactions,” says Stevenson. “Benefit coordinators in each agency would do things manually, faxing stuff to us and elsewhere.” There were no process efficiencies, and meanwhile the recession was still in play, which drained state tax coffers.

Regarding the benefits administration system, “it was all home-grown technology,” Frederick notes. She adds that much of her organization’s time and money was spent “maintaining the system, which had no functionality at all. We’d constantly have to field calls from employees regarding issues around their benefits. The call center was three people—not nearly enough to handle the overflow. Everything was manual.”

Coordinating information on benefits from each of the 85 different agencies for evaluative purposes was next to impossible. Equally dicey was navigating the state’s 100 different pay centers, “using just as many payroll technologies,” Frederick says, without a trace of irony in her voice.

Both Stevenson and Frederick had been in the state’s employ for only two years when the governor issued his directive. “Marion and I have been in the private sector since grade school,” Stevenson jokes, “which made us good people to take on the task. We knew what different vendors had to offer, and both of us had knowledge of Hewitt’s system. We decided not to put the project out to bid, and instead made a proposition to various vendors—‘Here is the shape we’re in and what we’re looking for. Can you do it, A to Z, by this drop-dead deadline?’ ”

The state got one phone call back—from Hewitt. Not that the HRO provider didn’t blink at first. “They had quite ancient technology,” laughs Carole Fleter, a Hewitt principal and account executive. “But, the good thing was that they were very clear about the experience they wanted, especially as it related to employees. There was no way for employees to get any online support, and many had to wait on the phone to get information that way. They desperately wanted a better employee experience.”

To get the state’s outdated system up and running in an abbreviated time frame, Hewitt had to create one central, online system that the 85 state agencies could access and easily use. A major challenge, says Fleter, was getting all the stakeholders—each local school, each state department, each library board, and so on—to agree not only to use the system but also to find time for training, as well. “All within the stiff deadline,” she says.

Tipping the scales was a major change management communications strategy put forward by the state personnel administration and Hewitt’s change management team (see Sidebar: Getting the Word Out). But, the real key to transforming the state’s HR delivery system was leadership support—the governor’s endorsement and active championship of the effort. “Gov. Perdue was instrumental in making sure we had access to the various agencies,” says Anne Lloyd, Hewitt principal and change management consultant. “We also experienced unwavering commitment from Steve and Marion’s organization, and that can’t be taken too lightly. A strong factor in the success of complex, large engagements like this one is commitment and leadership, and we got both in spades.”

Sweet, Sweet Sound
Today, benefit coordinators at the myriad state agencies still have primary responsibility for ensuring employees have access to benefits coverage—the difference is they now use the Employer Web Site, as it’s called, to complete transactions online. The fax machines are gone. And the call center is now staffed by Hewitt employees, providing the scalability that previously was lacking.

The employer portal was built specifically for the state of Georgia and is completely customized to the state personnel administration’s needs. The organization can now undertake comprehensive evaluations and, using the so-called Audit Log, can instantly see the transactions completed by a particular agency that day, including pay data. Different agencies also can share reports and files using the web site’s secure environment.

Employees leverage the GaBreeze self-service portal to access and see at a glance their flexible dental, vision, and other benefits, including health insurance, which are accessed via links. If coverages need to be changed to address life events such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child, a set of easy prompts takes employees through the steps.

Stevenson says the employee portal is a useful tool for the state to attract and retain employees. “When we interview someone, we can say `Here’s the base salary, and by the way, here are the benefits we provide like a pension and a 401(k), and other flexible benefits like dental,’ ” he explains. “It’s pretty compelling. We’ve never been able to sum things up like this before.”

As for the 165 people in the state personnel administration, the new HR delivery system has helped whittle the staff down by half, making good not only on the efficiencies wanted in today’s new Georgia, but also on the cost-effectiveness. Says Frederick, “We’ve gone from what was probably the most antiquated system in any state to the most sophisticated.”

Getting the Word Out
Convincing HR benefit coordinators in each of Georgia’s 85 different agencies that they needed to change the way they managed benefit transactions—and change fast—was not a walk in the park for the state personnel administration tasked with transforming the state’s outmoded HR delivery model.

What did the trick was a sophisticated change management communications strategy, starting with pointing out the efficiencies to be realized through an outsourced delivery model and culminating in a series of fast-track training sessions to get benefit coordinators and state employees up to speed. “We treated change management as another work stream in the project,” says Marion Frederick, Georgia assistant commissioner of compensation and benefits.

Frederick put together a team of cross-functional participants drawn from different state agencies, whose job was to listen and learn. “Marion and her team kept their ears to the ground to find out what constituents thought and felt, then took those comments to heart in adjusting plans,” says Ann Lloyd, principal and change management consultant at Hewitt Associates. “One thing they learned, for example, was that people wanted more demonstrations of the tools, which ultimately made a big difference in the acceptance and usage of the sites.”

Frederick agrees that she and her team members “asked for a lot of advice. We also put together a campaign to brand the project, and met about once a week to give status updates. We’re still together, even though the project went live on April 6.”

The following week proved the merit of the change management campaign. Says Frederick, “This is an organization where both benefit coordinators and employees essentially had no experience using a web site for HR, and yet we had 3,000 visits to the sites within a week. We were astounded. And, of course, very pleased.”

Tags: Benefits, Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global

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