Calling up an old friend is always a good idea.

At 18F, we like to keep in touch with our project partners. Our consulting model means that when we partner with other government agencies, we know that the partnership will eventually have to come to an end. We try to design engagements so that the work can continue without us. If all goes according to plan, by the time 18F rolls off a project, our government partners can smoothly carry on the product, design, development, and vendor oversight work independently.

18F partnered with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from December 2017 to June 2020 on the development of a product called eAPD — a user-friendly, modern product to streamline the creation, submission, review, and approval of the Advance Planning Documents that states use to request IT grant funding from CMS. We caught up with Jerome Lee of CMS, the product owner of eAPD.

These are Jerome’s opinions and are not official views of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services or the US Public Health Service.

Hello Jerome! So, catch us up: What has been going on with the project since 18F rolled off over two years ago?

A whole lot! 18F helped us transition to a new vendor in 2020. We took the codebase, pipeline, and design work and got it ready for ATO. In the summer of 2021, we took eAPD live to all states for HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) APDs. HITECH is a funding source focused on promoting interoperability between electronic health records and with external sources.

Over the last year or so, we’ve kept improving our DevOps pipeline — for example, we added end-to-end testing with cypress. We brought in a Quality Team. We are trying to shift testing earlier in the process, getting our Quality Team involved in conversations at the design stage about questions like “what are acceptance criteria?” and “what does it look like when a user is interacting with these designs?”

To prepare for the next major phase of the project, we’ve also spent time preparing other parts of our infrastructure to receive other types of APDs. Next up, MMIS (Medicaid Management Information System) Implementation Advance Planning Documents (IAPDs)! This is a really important step in the project because MMIS IAPDs make up the largest volume of APDs that I receive as a state officer and probably holds the most interest for our state partners. We’ve already started working on it and are looking to pilot it in the next couple months.

We started this project as an experiment to demonstrate what it means to have a business owner who is deeply tied to development of the product, and I think we’ve demonstrated that it is a value-add. As a Medicaid Enterprise Systems State Officer who has reviewed APDs for almost eight years, I have insight into the pain points that states and federal reviewers experience in the process. I review APDs, and at the same time serve as Product Owner for a product to make the APD process simpler — to “build products that you’d want to use.”

Can you talk about the process of preparing the app for public release?

CMS is piloting a continuous authority-to-operate (ATO) process. One of my colleagues helped manage that process by getting the security documents in place, going through penetration testing, and coordinating the final signoff.

For accessibility testing, we worked with CMS’s 508 compliance team which includes non-sighted testers who were able to load up the eAPD product, navigate it with screen readers, and report back to us on any issues. We remediated the issues that the user group reported, and we keep an ongoing focus on accessibility.

When we got the green light to go live it was a very exciting moment. Because of our DevOps approach, we had been deploying code through our pipeline the whole time, so we knew the deploy pipeline was stable. It was as simple as sending an email as saying “the system is live” once we finished the ATO process.

How has the experience of reviewing APDs changed for states and state officers using eAPD?

We have been finding that eAPD reduces the overall size of the Advance Planning Document (APD). For one state, we saw the size of the APD shrink by about 40% or 50%. eAPD focuses only on what CMS needs from a regulatory standpoint, and it now includes more help text about what information states need to provide. More focused documents are great for the reviewers as well as the state staff. It reduces the amount of documentation that the reviewer needs to review and the state needs to generate.

The system is able to calculate budgets and totals on the fly, which minimizes the amount of re-verification I need to do. That saves me a tremendous amount of time as a state officer, and it helps me focus on the purpose of the grant request. Our user testing showed that state officers spent less time double-checking the math, and more time focusing on the purpose of the APD.

What are some recent challenges or interesting problems that you have been working on?

The biggest challenges often involve questions like “How do we make better use of our time to improve the speed of delivery?”, “Do we have too many meetings?”, “How do we make sure the people who need to be included are included, but also allow people to focus on their work when they need to?”

Balancing stakeholder expectations is also an ongoing and important challenge. We want to roll out new features, make sure our code is well-tested and high-quality, and ensure the user experience is excellent.

What makes you most proud about this project?

That’s a tough one, because I am proud of a lot of things!

At the end of the day I’m most proud of the character and caliber of people I work alongside. Teams and people solve problems, technology is just a tool to get there. I’ve seen the leadership of our tech lead, design lead, and DevOps lead mature and blossom. They’re not just solving the hard technical problems, they are mentoring too, and encouraging people on the team to solve problems and take ownership over them.

Shout-out and thank you to all the contributors who have worked on eAPD over the years.