Acumen steps up when it counts

Acumen Solutions builds a database project as a software-as-a-service CRM offering using Salesforce.com.

During the 2010 national census, a cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) system gave the Census Bureau a 360-degree view of data flowing in from its thousands of partner organizations that helped gather statistics for the huge demographics project.

In ramping up for the census, the bureau needed a more efficient way to manage these partnerships, which are essential to the data collection effort. Partners include businesses, community organizations, faith-based and non-profit groups, and tribal and local governments that help gather census information.

To accomplish that, Census worked with systems integrator Acumen Solutions to migrate more than 257,000 partner organizations and associated data histories from an existing database and other sources to a cloud-based CRM system.

The system, the Integrated Partner Contact Database, is based on Salesforce.com’s software-as-a-service CRM offering. The system was instrumental to helping Census pull off the monumental juggling act of managing partners and providing reliable statistics.

“The goal of the IPCD is to manage all partner organizations, their respective contacts, and all 2010 Census commitment activities,” said Willette Allen, chief of partnership and data services at the Census Bureau.

The database also provides reporting features that allow Census to monitor, improve and extend its partnership national footprint more accurately, Allen said. “The system gave field partnership staff a 360-degree view of all interactions with a partner” and the Census Bureau more reliable statistics to report to its oversight function, Allen said.

Moving fast

The implementation of the system, begun in September 2008, was achieved within 12 weeks to meet an aggressive launch date required to make the system functional for the first wave of Census hires.

With 2,700 users and 257,000 partner organizations in the database, it is one of the largest Saleforce.com implementations in government, Allen said. Tens of thousands of transactions were recorded per day to capture services provided by the agency and their partners.

The bureau recognized that cloud computing would be more cost-effective and allow faster development turnaround times than a hosted or premises-based, traditional database solution, Allen said. A flexible cloud solution can be reconfigured to respond to new business requirements and challenges.

Cloud computing is a model that promotes on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources, such as networks, servers, storage, applications and services, that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

Initially, the goal was to improve communication among partners, but the system also collected information on where partners were located and whether they were in an area with a population that was hard to count, such as renters who moved a lot. said Niki Clayton, director of the public sector at Acumen.

“We were able to use the system to identify our partners who were in hard-to-count locations, to target communications to them based on that information,” Clayton said. “The goal of the partnership campaign was to increase the number of people to fill out the census form.”

Templates and training

Acumen Solutions built a set of e-mail templates for the Census system that are used to manage communication with partners. The templates are an embedded part of the Salesforce.com CRM solution. With them, developers can create templates with specific branding images and text. For example, if someone at Census wanted to send an e-mail to 100 people with the same consistency, branding and language, she could pick a template distribution list, and the specified recipients would receive the e-mail.

Accuracy is also essential because the Census reports could be shared with Congress. Both summary and detail reports provide metrics to help Census adjust their program as needed. Acumen also developed a curriculum for user training and delivered those courses on site at the Census Bureau and its 12 regional offices, Clayton said.

Census and Acumen are now retrofitting the system to provide data services. After the release of Census 2010 data, members of the public could call in and ask for data products based on the results. For instance, someone might ask for information on how many people in a community earn less than $50,000. Requests such as that one are being captured in the CRM solution, which is being tweaked to accommodate such queries.

Planning for how the CRM system can be used for Census 2020 is in full swing, and is incorporating lessons learned from the past. For instance, when collecting information from its partners during the 2010 census, bureau specialists had to fill out paper forms and enter data into the system.

However, several technology options are available that would allow Census workers to scan that information or would enable partners to sign in to the system online. However, because of operations and security concerns, the Census Bureau was not able to use those capabilities for the 2010 census, Clayton said.

However, that is the type of technology that the agency hopes to use for the next census. “In the future, the Census Bureau plans to explore adding mobile computing to this application,” Allen said, including BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads and tablet computers.

Moreover, Census would like to improve the knowledge management capabilities of the system and expand the use of social collaboration tools. “That would allow staff to easily communicate,” Allen said, as well as highlight best practices across regions and conduct online forums on issues relating to data dissemination and outreach.

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