A State Agency Scraps Its Paper-Based Licensing System

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In adopting a digital licensing system, officials at the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission say they moved away not just from stacks and stacks of paper, but also an old mindset.

When the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission set out to modernize its licensing process last year, leaders at the agency found one of their biggest hurdles was getting buy-in for the new system from employees.

The archaic all-paper system had created its own cottage industry of specialties within the commission, which oversees upwards of 180,000 licensees. Responsibilities were siloed and only a few employees knew how to complete certain tasks, making it difficult to process applications or track down information about pending licenses.

“Literally we were sitting on files,” said Christopher Dowell, director of information technology at the Tennessee ABC, of the sheer bulk of paper housed in the state’s offices. “It required real leadership from the director-level down to say we are going with this.”

Since the commission transitioned to an all-digital system, the state has consolidated nine offices into four, eliminated all walk-in traffic associated with licensing, and drastically cut the time it takes to process new license applications and renewals, Dowell said.

The state used technology from Accela, a software development company, to overhaul its licensing process. After the extensive test run with Tennessee, the company last week released the new civic application for alcohol licensing for use by other state and local governments. It also released a business licensing application that was initially tested with Denver, Colorado’s Department of Excise and Licenses.

The applications are out-of-the-box software that can help state and local governments looking to streamline their licensing process and improve customer service, said Dave Maxwell, senior product marketing manager at Accela.

In understanding how to build a digital licensing system to replace a paper system, Maxwell said it was important to first assess the Tennessee ABC’s workflow and understand the steps in processing a license. Workflows can be customized for each individual agency, he said.

When adopting the software, Dowell said it was important for state workers to understand that each step in the manual process did not necessarily have a digital equivalent and that efficiencies could be achieved through workflow automation. He said local governments should expect to have a lot of back and forth with a vendor in order to develop a successful product. There may be some features that employees want to add after they become more familiar with the software, he said.  

“You can’t just order something and have it delivered,” Dowell said.

Governments can also expect a learning curve when transitioning from a paper system to a digital one, both for employees and for members of the public seeking government services, Maxwell said. Because it may take users time to get used to a new system, Maxwell said other local governments have opted to roll out extensive public education campaigns when they deploy new digital systems.

In Tennessee, Dowell said there was concern that some licensees, like mom-and-pop liquor stores, would not have computer access and wouldn’t be able to complete the new digital license renewals. To address concerns, the state installed kiosks at commission offices and made staff available to walk licensees through the process initially in order to answer any questions. ABC employees also went to meetings around the state to educate licensees about the new process.

Tennessee spent about $3 million for the development and implementation of the digital system, Dowell said. The new ABC licensing system doesn’t replace all aspects of the licensing process as certain applicants are still required to attend public hearings. But the streamlined workflow has enabled employees to work on all aspects of the licensing process instead of focusing only on certain steps. As a result, the state has seen greater efficiencies in workflow and a reduction in the amount of time it takes to obtain or renew a license, Dowell said.

“It’s a paradigm shift in terms of the service we can provide,” he said.