Building an Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE) at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry
by C. Pontz and D. J. Power
The Decision Situation
In the United States, "unemployment insurance provides workers, whose jobs have been terminated through no fault of their own, monetary payments for a given period of time or until they find a new job" (cf., LII, 2002). The individual states administer programs for providing unemployment compensation. Decision makers in the appropriate state agency use a complex set of rules and eligibility criteria to determine the award of unemployment payments. Federal law also requires an adjudication process when an employee disagrees with an employer's decision to deny the employee these benefits. The program was established by the federal Social Security Act in1935.
The Decision Support Challenge
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in otherstates, when an eligibility issue for unemploymentcompensation is identified, a claims examiner willconduct factfinding and issue a Notice ofDetermination to all affected parties. Untilrecently, the examiner conducted "a lengthy and subjective legal research process to resolve the eligibility question". Since individual examiners conducted their own research, different methods sometimes led to inconsistencies in the claims adjudication process and the decisions that were made. Also, the determination letters issued to claimants often varied in their language and level of detail.
The DSS Response
To standardize the claims adjudication process, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry wanted a statewide system to assist examiners in fact-finding, decision-making, and issuance of determinations. A consultant from EDS, a global information technology services company, proposed the use of an expert system driven by decision-branching technology that stores and maintains legal eligibility criteria in its database. In addition, the system would be Web-based to help ensure consistency in forms delivery to claimants and employers (cf., EDS EASE case PDF, 2000).
Description of the Decision Support Solution -- EASE
The Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE) is a web-based application designed to assist adjudicators in conducting fact-finding and writing non-monetary eligibility determinations (check Figure 1 and view a slide show of 30 sequenced EASE screen shots). The system was built beginning in 1998 using the EXSYS expert system (www.exsys.com) and Internet technologies on a Microsoft Windows NT platform. EASE includes automated interfaces with the existing mainframe unemployment compensation system. The EASE server and application is currently installed at a central location in Harrisburg, PA where users throughout the state can access the application using a web browser. The system has been in production at the Scranton Unemployment Compensation Service Center since July 29, 1999. The system was then implemented in the Erie, Allentown and Altoona Service Centers. Currently, EASE has been implemented statewide.
Figure 1. Ease Screen Shot showing question-answer format.
The Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE) improves the consistency of determinations since all determinations are processed under the same system. The system stores the logic and rules of the Unemployment Compensation Law in a knowledge base. Based on the facts provided and the examiner's assessment of credibility, the system determines what section(s) of Unemployment Compensation law applies to claimant benefit eligibility. The system then generates a written Notice of Determination explaining the decision with language that is easy to understand by the claimant and employer.
The system provides capabilities for accessing and transmitting data with the Department of Labor and Industry's mainframe and provides an interface to the Central Office's mainframe (UCAPS). This interface provides access to additional data that is required on Federal reports. EASE resides on a Local Area Network (LAN) and operates on multiple sites. EASE supports several hundred simultaneous users.
EASE guides claims examiners through a series of system-prompted questions, with the system automatically applying relevant laws and regulations. Since the system can recognize inconsistencies in answers, it continues to query until all inconsistencies are resolved. The expert system technology then arrives at a determination of eligibility consistent with applicable law. Once the determination is finalized by a Claims Examiner, the system automatically generates the appropriate standardized forms and letters from the central server. The system also has access to employer wage filing information, which resides on a legacy system. Subsets of this information are warehoused to a distributed database to facilitate data entry.
While EASE, a knowledge-driven decision support system, significantly reduces the time spent processing claims, many argue its real value lies in standardizing the way unemployment law is applied. EASE provides process support and cues to examiners. Department decisions are probably fairer and are certainly more consistent. That means decisions are less likely to be challenged by the claimant or the employer, which saves time and money.
The EASE project was complex, but the entire project -- from process flow analysis to design, development, initial prototype implementation, and training -- took only nine months. During the development process several prototype demonstrations were conducted with future users and with managers to allow for additional input to the design of the system. A varying numbers of programmers worked on the project from a high of 14 to 1 programmer who currently works on maintenance tasks.
In Fall 2002, approximately 500 examinersare using the EASE system. There are an additional500 Unemployment Compensation interviewers who utilize EASE to generateissue-specific factfinding forms. In 2001, approximately 113,000 EASE determinations were issued. The cost to developed the original EASE system was approximately USD $1 Million. The only direct annual maintenance costs are approximately $3,500 for the EXSYS software maintenance.
Some of the benefits derived from the EASE system include:
EASE lowers deployment costs because it is a Web-based, enterprise-wide solution that can be accessed from different locations and a variety of workstations. Using a standard Web browser user interface provides many benefits:
EASE has been a success. The EASE system required very minimal user training. The system required no installation effort at the client computer since a web browser is standard software for department PCs, and the network connection already existed. The distribution of new releases of the software only required modification at the server.
By working very closely with the contractor, the Department exceeded expectations set forth in the contract. The EASE system was completed under budget with more system functionality and features than originally planned.
Pennsylvania is in the process of adding otheradjudication issues to the EASE system. By next year, the goal is to be able to issueall nonmonetary determinations through the EASE system.
Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry's Deputy Secretary for Unemployment Compensation Programs Alan R. Williamson considers Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE) a resounding success. He noted shortly after the prototype was implemented that "A key feature of the EASE system is the direct connection between Department staff to the information-based business process that they oversee. This allows staff to be self-sufficient in monitoring, troubleshooting, and expanding EASE. We are very proud of the EASE system and plan to showcase it to other state agencies to demonstrate how the new Web-based technology can revolutionize our business processes."
Founded in 1962 as Electronic Data Systems, EDS is the leading global information technology (IT) services company. EDS has more than 140,000 employees in 60 countries and more than 35,000 business and government clients around the world. In 2001 revenues exceeded $21.5 billion; more than 40 percent non-U.S. For more information about EDS go to www.eds.com.
EXSYS Inc. has an 18-year history of providing development software and services that focus on the realistic and cost-effective utilization of expert system technology. EXSYS software is in use by over 50% of the Fortune 100 companies, many Government agencies, and thousands of businesses and organizations. For more information about EXSYS go to www.exsys.com/exsys.html.
About Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) is among the top 50 largest employers in Pennsylvania, with more than 6,000 employees in 200 offices statewide. Established in 1913, the Department originally inspected the working conditions in factories around the state. Over time, the Department's responsibilities expanded. Among its many tasks, L&I administers benefits to unemployed individuals, workers' compensation to individuals with job related injuries, and provides vocational rehabilitation to individuals with disabilities. For more information about Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry go to www.dli.state.pa.us.
Questions for Analysis and Discussion
This case is based on email correspondence and publicly available materials at www.itsc.state.md.us/Best_Practices/Ease.htm, www.exsys.com and at www.eds.com. Craig Pontz has reviewed and updated the case and he provided the screen shots of the Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE). Craig wrote and posted the materials at the Maryland ITSC Unemployment Insurance website on June 15, 2000 that serve as a foundation for much of the case description.
EDS, "Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry", at URL www.eds.com/case_studies/case_penn.shtml.
EXSYS, "Expert Assistance System for Examiners", at URL www.exsys.com/appnotes/exexam.htm.
Legal Information Institute (LII), "Unemployment Compensation Law: An Overview", accessed 10/22/02 at URL http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/unemployment_compensation.html.
About the Authors:
Craig Pontz is Chief, UI Adjudication Services, Bureau of UC Benefits and Allowances, Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Mr. Pontz is the original author of EASE.
D. J. Power is Editor of DSSResources.COM and Professor of Information Systems at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA.
Please cite as:
Pontz, C. and D. J. Power, "Building an Expert Assistance System for Examiners (EASE) at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry", November 2002, at URL DSSResources.COM.
Craig Pontz provided permission to develop a case study about EASE on August 7, 2002. This case study was posted at DSSResources.COM on November 14, 2002.
This case study is for informational purposes only. DSSResources.COM makes no warranties, express or implied, in this summary.