When 2011 budget cuts forced the state of Iowa to close 36 of 55 employment offices, government officials looked for ways to keep providing services to residents, 90,000 of whom were out of work.
Using desktop virtualization tools, the state equipped schools, libraries and other public buildings with secured online applications for residents to get help with filing for unemployment, writing resumes, searching for jobs, and accessing state programs. The project has been so successful that a year later, Iowa provides more services in more places than ever before–for less than it used to spend.
“We were reacting to necessity at first. But we’re able to keep services and still save money,” says Gary Bateman, CIO of Iowa Workforce Development, a state agency that oversees employment services. “We feel pretty good about that.”
The agency won a CIO 100 award for the project, which saved $6.5 million in state funds and impressed our judges as a great effort to make services available and quickly achieve good financial payback. The state already had hardware and software licenses in place and reused existing equipment. The additional cost was just $8,600.
Desktop virtualization wasn’t exactly new to Iowa Workforce Development. Like 53 percent of IT leaders we recently polled about technology plans, its IT group had already rolled out desktop virtualization technology–in this case, to about 600 state employees, who, as it turned out, served as guinea pigs for last year’s broader, public rollout.
The employees helped IT identify best practices. For example, the user interface must be as simple and graphical as possible, says Bateman, who joined the agency in November 2010 after a career in corporate IT in the automotive industry. The virtual desktop employees used had a clunky folder metaphor, like mid-1990s-era Microsoft Windows. The public system uses the icons and Web-style links popular with the consumer public instead.
The agency started the public rollout in July 2011 with one virtual access point in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Now there are 3,510 access points in 722 locations across the state. That includes senior citizens centers, courthouses, National Guard armories and places of worship. One university has installed over 500 machines so students can get started on job searches. “Anything with an Internet connection is a candidate,” Bateman says.
One surprise for the state was how much the system is used in the evenings and on weekends. Before, residents could get access to employment services only during the hours that physical offices were open, typically 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. Now, people are online until 9:00 p.m. and, Bateman suspects, there would be traffic even later if libraries and other public buildings were open later. Saturday is the system’s busiest day.
Armed with data about usage, the state started to make staff available by phone and online chat until 8 p.m. on weekdays and added five hours of Saturday service.
The new system has served about 180,000 people so far, and at least one high school wants Bateman to adapt it for use on iPads to give access to teenagers preparing for college, trade school or the working world. “It’s a proven system now,” he says.