Oklahoma Employment Security Commission
Then-Oklahoma Employment Security Commission executive director Robin Roberson speaks at a press conference in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Chris Landsberger / The Oklahoman)

(Update: The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission met again Wednesday, May 27, at named Shelley Zumwalt as interim executive director.)

Robin Roberson resigned as executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission on Friday, May 22, following a meeting in which commissioners handed the agency’s information technology and claims-processing functions to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

Roberson told Dale Denwalt of The Oklahoman that she had been encouraged to step down. NonDoc was unable to read Roberson before publication.

The OESC meeting earlier in the day was broadcast on Zoom and had more than a 100 observers. It included an almost two-hour executive session to discuss technology security, fraudulent unemployment claims and a “high level OESC personnel review.”

‘We absolutely need additional help’

The state has been inundated with applications for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite efforts to ramp up capacity, OESC has struggled to keep up with the flood of claims.

The backlog has been compounded by a large number of fraudulent claims and problems with federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applications.

The two actions approved in today’s meeting will give OMES authority over OESC’s information technology division and its business practices, including “all, not previously consolidated, people, processes, and intellectual property that are associated with technology, information security, cyber security, business processes and design.”

David Reid, chairman of the board, said the changes were designed to help clear the agency’s backlog and reduce instances of fraud.

“The ownership of all processes, the leadership, the design and the plan still comes from OESC,” said Secretary of Digital Transformation and Administration David Ostrowe, who attended the virtual meeting. “OMES is just engaged to handle the work, just like a vendor would. This is not moving the responsibility for the mission from one agency to another.”

OESC is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. OMES is described on its website as “state government’s backbone” and provides “finance, property, human resources and technology services” to a number of state agencies.

The first measure, handing over OESC’s IT division, was previously passed at a board meeting Tuesday, but it was presented again today because the first meeting had not been properly posted for the public to access.

Regarding the second, wider measure, Reid said it is necessary.

“Like in all businesses and organizations, things are kind of interwoven,” he said. “And I think the OESC and the OMES will need to delineate this and they’ll come to an understanding before it’s transferred. But this gives them the permission to start that dialogue.”

During the meeting, Roberson said that such delineation of responsibility would be “very helpful.”

She added that she had reached out for assistance in early April to the state’s chief information officer, Jerry Moore, who works under OMES. His office has been running OESC’s IT since then, she said.

Roberson said that, although the OESC needed and had requested assistance, she had not asked for OMES to formally take over the areas as provided in the motions before the board.

“We absolutely need additional help,” she said. “And we’ve discussed bandwidth in all areas. We need help in more than just IT. We need more bodies to help process a lot of these claims. (…) I agree that we need the assistance and additional help 100 percent. How that’s structured is a different question.”

The measures passed 4-1 and 3-2, respectively.

Board member Trent Smith, who voted for both measures, praised the decision to move OESC functions to OMES.

“They manage IT infrastructure and services for 180-something agencies in the state, so we feel like that gives us our best chance of immediate success,” Smith said.

Voting against both measures was board member David Adams, who called the first “too ambiguous.” He also panned the second.

“All I feel like this is doing is creating more conflict whenever we should all be focused on the same mission,” Adams said. “I know that people want to feel like just because something changes that it’s going to get better. But there’s no guarantee, and there has been no guarantee in these motions that even measures whether or not it’s going to get better.”

‘An absolute, unmitigated disaster’

At the State Capitol on Friday, lawmakers expressed support for making a change at OESC, although they were less certain that the handover to OMES is the needed change.

“The OESC is an absolute, unmitigated disaster,” House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) told NonDoc. “It’s hard to express how awful it is right now. I’m for anything that gets people paid and gets rid of fraud. And here’s what I know: What we’re doing is not working. I don’t know if this is the right thing or not, but I’m proud of the board for trying something. And if this doesn’t fix the problem, I want them to try something else.”

In his private life, Echols is business partners with Smith and said he encouraged his friend to push for change.

“The citizens of the state of Oklahoma are sick of excuses,” Echols said. “They don’t care about old software. They don’t care about all the reasons we can’t get it done. They care about getting it done.”

Echols added that the OESC board coordinates closely with the administration of Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“The governor’s office has complete and total control of that board,” he said. “They’re talking to the governor constantly. They’re in constant communication with the governor. If he has something he wants out of the board, he just has to ask.”

Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC) agreed that changes are needed at OESC, but she expressed skepticism about the measures that were passed.

“My thoughts are that we’ve got an OESC that is not working the way I think anybody wants it to,” she said. “And we are sending it over to OMES, and no one has explained to me how satisfactorily that is a fix.”

‘A completely unwinnable situation’

Roberson’s impending departure was not mentioned in the public portion of Friday’s meeting, but Smith said at one point the director had been “thrust into a completely unwinnable situation.”

In a statement released after Roberson’s resignation, Stitt thanked her for her service “during these unprecedented times.”

“I have confidence the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission will identify the right leader to quickly get to the bottom of the issues exposed by this pandemic, to continue to modernize its antiquated systems as we move forward, and to deliver the services Oklahomans deserve,” Stitt wrote.

Roberson, who founded the consulting firm Goose and Gander, came to OESC at the beginning of February, just weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak and its accompanying economic chaos hit Oklahoma.

Ostrowe recently called her “absolutely the perfect hire” for the job.

(Editor’s note: OESC commissioner Jim Quillen also serves on the board of the Sustainable Journalism Foundation, which oversees NonDoc. He voted in favor of both measures Friday and was not contacted regarding this article before or after the meeting.)