The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has struggled in recent years amid budget cuts, staff reductions and a breach of public trust after an automated computer system falsely accused 20,000 residents of fraud over a two-year span. Michelle Beebe aims to change that. Beebe was appointed to lead the UIA in late April, following the state’s decision to reassign the former director Sharon Moffett-Massey in the wake of the false-fraud allegations. Beebe comes to Michigan from Utah where she led that state’s unemployment agency since December 2014. After three weeks on the job, Beebe spoke with MiBiz about the challenges the UIA faces in Michigan and how she plans to help improve the agency.
What’s one thing that you’re bringing from your previous role in Utah that you think will help you in your new position?
I’m coming from a high-performing state that has an unemployment insurance program that is running well and coming into Michigan where we have staff that are hungry for good leadership and to help bring them into a long-term sustainable future.
When you say high-performing state with regards to unemployment, what does that look like?
It’s a matter of solid relationships with both the community of individuals who are filing for unemployment as well as the employers who are fundamentally funding unemployment insurance, as well as efficiency in government processes. I know that one thing that Michigan is dedicated to is finding efficiencies in the way the government operates.
How do you balance bureaucratic efficiency with the need to maintain security and due diligence in the process?
You hit right on it. It’s a matter of balance and how you dedicate resources and how you allocate individuals to the integrity aspect and due process, versus getting the workload done.
Looking ahead, what are some strategies to help Michigan do that?
There are three primary things that I intend to focus on. One is regarding program integrity, specifically with the fraud situation, both with fraudulently receiving benefits and also identity theft. The second is regarding re-employment. The primary function of the unemployment insurance program is to provide temporary assistance while people get back to work. I want to make sure that we have a strong connection to our local Michigan Works! offices and employers and other community partners to make sure that we’re facilitating that return to employment. The third piece I’m focusing on is effective service delivery — when an individual contacts us over the phone, online, in person, what that process currently looks like and how we can enhance our customer service.
What is the state doing to prevent the false-fraud cases that plagued the agency over the last few years?
(It’s) multi-pronged, of course. We are working with our claimant employer advocacy groups regarding service delivery process. We are taking a deep dive into both our technology systems as well as our workload processes to identify points where we can really enhance that integrity piece.
Part of the problem with the Unemployment Insurance Agency seems to stem from the agency being underfunded and understaffed. Is there any room in the budget to increase funding?
I think that’s something that states across the country (face) with unemployment insurance being a federal state partnership. There are 53 different unemployment insurance programs. Each of them have their struggles — Michigan included — in balancing out efficiency in the process versus staff support. That’s something that I’ll definitely be looking at as part of that service delivery piece.
You mentioned Utah was a high-performing state with unemployment. How did that state administer its program so effectively?
It’s effectively leveraging technology so that we still have a foundation of exceptional customer service and then we’re really targeting our resources where it’s best and most appropriate.
What kinds of technology help with that?
When it comes to technology, I think one of the biggest pieces of that is the re-employment piece and how we’re best identifying individuals that could benefit from a mediated, one-on-one, individual re-employment plan, versus individuals where if you give them the self-service tools online and you connect them with their community partners, they can take off and run with it on their own.
What’s your vision for the unemployment agency in five years?
It’s addressing the program integrity and fraud issue. It’s facilitating those re-employment connections and it’s having an easy-to-navigate and helpful service delivery system. One thing that’s been very exciting for me in coming to Michigan — and this being my third Monday on the job — is seeing the receptiveness of staff, the commitment they have to getting things right, and then also hearing from all the community partners.
Do you have a timeline in place for when we may start to see improvements to the agency?
We’re currently in the midst of developing a strategic plan, and the first step in that is making sure we have the correct organizational restructure. That is top priority for me right now.
Does that mean hiring and firing decisions?
Not necessarily hiring and firing, but resource allocation: where we have the people and whether or not that’s the most effective function for them.