Sarah K. White
Senior Writer

Cherokee Nation empowers its citizens with IT

Aug 14, 20237 mins
CIO 100Digital TransformationDiversity and Inclusion

What started as a way to facilitate emergency COVID-19 relief has grown into a full-service digital platform that connects Cherokee citizens with human services and government resources no matter where they live.

Paula Starr stylized
Credit: Paula Starr / Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the largest tribe in the US, with more than 460,000 citizens living across a 7,000-square-mile reservation in Oklahoma and around the world. As a widespread community, when COVID-19 struck, Cherokee Nation’s IT services department knew it needed a way to connect citizens digitally with government services, emergency relief, COVID-19 aid, and other vital resources for support.

Cherokee Nation had run digital campaigns in the past, but the systems in place could not authenticate citizenship, leaving a significant amount of manual labor behind each interaction. COVID-19 expedited the need for a digital platform to handle authentication and meet the spike in demand for assistance in the wake of a global pandemic.

Cherokee Nation CIO Paula Starr’s solution was the Gadugi Portal — a full-service app built on Salesforce’s platform that not only gives Cherokee Nation citizens quick access to government resources, but also authenticates citizenship with the click of a button. Gadugi, which means “working together” in Cherokee, is what the core of the portal is all about: connecting Cherokee citizens with support and resources and finding new ways to better connect them with their culture.

Connecting citizens with vital resources

The Gadugi Portal, which started as a simple COVID assistance and contract tracing app, has since grown into a full-service application that automatically authenticates citizenship, connects users with assistance and resources, identifies scholarship opportunities, and much more.

Prior to the portal’s development, service applications could be submitted online but citizens were still required to drive to the tribal headquarters in Tahlequah, Okla., for authentication, leaving Starr’s team with a lot of physical paperwork. The biggest bottleneck was validating citizenship against large citizen databases.

When in-person meetings and interaction ground to a halt in March 2020, Starr’s team set about automating the citizen authentication process, and by June 2021 the first assistance campaign was offered through the Gadugi Portal, extending support and relief surrounding COVID-19 related hardships.

The app would ultimately enable those who live far from Cherokee offices to connect with vital resources, which now extend beyond COVID-19 assistance to include services such as clothing and coat drives, career services, and scholarship funding. For citizens who live close to the reservation and headquarters, the portal has helped remove one barrier to accessing support, making it easier for Cherokee citizens to connect with government resources on their own time.

The project has earned the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma a 2023 CIO 100 Award for IT innovation and leadership.

The challenges of rapid adoption

Almost immediately upon launch, the portal had 500 citizens per minute trying to log in. Demand was so unexpected that Starr’s team had to implement virtual waiting rooms using Akamai to help offload the demand.

To that point, the Cherokee Nation IT services team had never required a full call center. But with citizens adopting the platform at a fast pace, Starr quickly realized that her team would have to get creative about support. An ad-hoc call center was established, with teachers on their summer break hired temporarily as support staff, working from their homes using a mobile app to help Cherokee citizens troubleshoot issues with the portal.

“We have operators at the front desk of the complex and they move calls through the system, but we’ve never had a call center to support citizens. And we learned very quickly that we had to have that to go along with this digital campaign. So we very hurriedly put together a call center. We had teachers taking call center calls for that first week until we could get an actual call center set up with dedicated agents,” says Starr.

Engagement with the Gadugi Portal hasn’t slowed since. Starr points to a recent campaign asking citizens about how to use COVID-19 funds. That survey garnered more responses than the previous tribal election. As citizens become aware of the portal, they are eagerly adopting it to stay connected with Cherokee Nation resources.

“We figured it would be high adoption. We did not think it was going to be as high as it was. It was amazing to see how people would respond once you made it simple for them to do so,” says Starr.

Working together to build success

The Salesforce technology underpinning the Gadugi Portal has enabled Cherokee Nation to validate tribal citizenship through an integration with Cherokee Nation’s tribal registration system, and provide expedited financial assistance and payments to citizens through banking system integrations.

The portal can be accessed from any browser, enabling the Cherokee Nation to reach citizens outside of the tribal capital area, and to respond faster to emergency situations, such as natural disasters. Thanks to the portal, the Cherokee Nation human services team can quickly identify impacted populations, communicate with them to establish the type and level of emergency relief they need, and get application aid forms out fast.

To date, over $740 million in assistance has been distributed via Gadugi Portal, with quick turnaround times for ACH or paper checks. The Cherokee Nation has also been able to fulfill around 900,000 electronically submitted requests without adding new staff to handle the demand. Six times the number of students have received aid via digital campaigns as compared to paper-based campaigns from previous years. For example, prior to the Gadugi Portal, around 4,000 children were assisted through the Clothes for Kids program — a number that jumped to 28,000 in the first year of the Gadugi Portal, thanks to the automated approval process.

Automation has also enabled Starr’s team to maintain the portal without having to budget for additional staff. And as other departments get on board with the Gadugi Portal, the focus is on prioritizing growth by adding new features and services to the platform.

“The great thing is that it reflects our government services, [which are] are very diverse. They traverse education, commerce, culture, language, career services, human services, and we’ve been able to represent a mix of all of that with the Gadugi Portal,” says Starr.

Gadugi Portal is an example of how digital transformation can be leveraged to improve lives and provide community support. COVID-19 relief was just the beginning for the Gadugi Portal, which now gives citizens access to scholarship aid, college housing assistance, emergency utility assistance, drought relief for ranchers, emergency storm relief, clothing and coat assistance for children in need, and summer camp and learning opportunities for students, among a growing number of services.

Tribal citizens can also stay connected through the portal, open tickets for service requests, check on their request status, get updates, and see once it’s been flagged and completed. The app has continued to grow, finding new avenues to provide resources to tribal members and to “encourage the adoption of culture” through the portal, says Starr. For example, Starr’s team ran a campaign with the natural resources department to distribute Cherokee heirloom seeds to citizens.

Going forward, Starr and her team aim to add additional resources and services for a range of Cherokee Nation departments, as well as improve the portal’s ease-of-use and implement further automation — all in service of improving the overall user experience. 

“We’re working to implement a new enhancement through Salesforce called public sector solutions, which is going to change some things for us. It’s going to add some automation and just make the user experience easier for everyone. It’s having that trickle-down effect to the other departments; they now see the benefit and they want to be a part of this,” says Chris Welch, IT product manager at Cherokee Nation.