A boost for state aid

In Texas, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission knew its mainframe system for welfare eligibility determination needed replacement. Texas suffered from a litany of technology woes, with a once state-of-the-art system groaning under the weight of obsolescence.

Legislators approved a new Web-based system, the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, or TIERS, in 1999. Its implementation has cost $351.7 million so far, and it has become a state scandal. In June, the state announced it would postpone expanding the system beyond its three-county implementation until developers resolve concerns about unsatisfactory application response times and system uptime.

Texas isn’t alone in its woes. Colorado has gone through a rocky implementation of its modernized system, the Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS). Not all state modernization efforts are failures, but the bad cases tend to receive a lot of attention. They engender circuses of angry politicians and crusading class-action lawsuits, not to mention high anxiety among the people whom they mistakenly shortchange.

Learning from states’ mistakes is increasingly important because of what some observers see as a wave of state modernization projects. The last wave was in the mid- to late-1980s, said David McCurley, a managing director at Accenture, which worked on TIERS from 2005 to 2007. Now, those primarily mainframe systems deployed 20 years ago are past their prime.

In addition, new Web technologies and limited funding for employees who handle walk-in support put pressure on states to update older systems, he added. Self-service is a vital addition, McCurley said. Most welfare beneficiaries have a job, which means that coming into an office during normal working hours every time they need service can be a burden.

Changing on the fly
In Colorado, officials wanted to replace six aging systems that support various state-administered welfare programs with one portal system. They signed a $92 million contract with EDS in July 2000. The older environment included COBOL language programs and lots of command line interfaces, said Ron Huston, chief information officer of the Colorado Department of Human Services until early July. He’s now the state’s enterprise architect.

Of all the proposals that Colorado received, the low bid — not from EDS — was for $218 million and the highest was $260 million, Huston said. To get to the $92 million figure, state officials winnowed proposed functionality and moved some development work in-house on the assumption that state employees could absorb it.

Colorado won’t attempt that again, Huston said. “Now we’re really upfront about what is needed,” he said. “And if it’s not there, we need to do a different priority.”

One of the big changes CBMS sought was automated determinations of benefits eligibility. Older systems were data-entry systems that contained determinations case workers made using paper worksheets.

Supporting that new functionality required massive data conversion from the existing systems. For that, EDS proposed a cutting-edge solution whereby data would be converted to the new format only when a case worker needed it. But it proved so unworkable that Colorado abandoned it even before the implementation phase. EDS said no one was available to speak about the Colorado project by press time.

“If you can find a way to do it, it makes your migration of your clients easier,” Huston said. But real-life conditions might make that unlikely. In Colorado, if a client first applied for benefits in one county and then moved to another, there was no way to get to the client’s file in that second county.

Colorado officials decided to do a mass data conversion, which led to the discovery of a different problem. Because CBMS housed decision-making software for ligibility decisions, it needed more information than was stored in the existing systems, said Roy Cohen, CBMS application manager.

“The amount of data that came over to CBMS wasn’t enough to make a decision on whether somebody should get benefits,” he said. Unfortunately, that became an apparent and widespread problem only after the state installed CBMS in all 64 counties in fall 2004 — despite the objections of many county managers. The state reacted by putting a freeze on cases while information technology officials struggled to add as much data as they could, with case workers entering the rest of the information.
“I don’t know what else we could have done,” Cohen said.

Several upgrades later, CBMS officials say they’ve turned a corner. In December 2007, the state settled a class-action suit for sluggish delivery of welfare services. As part of the settlement, the state agreed to participate in random audits that measure delivery time and issue monthly progress reports for 36 months.

Colorado also is considering how to improve automation of claims processing and determining which services it could deploy via the Web. Federal regulations require face-to-face interaction in some cases, but not all.

“We’re trying to recognize the difference between those kinds of rules and the complexity” of online delivery, Huston said.

Building block approach
Service-oriented architecture is another technology approach that is finding favor among state officials modernizing social-services applications because it allows them to build systems with more manageable, self-contained modules, said John Kost, a Gartner analyst and former case worker.

SOA is still a somewhat abstract concept to some, but the idea behind it is simple: Don’t create new software that does everything from checking client addresses to playing the timpani. Instead, break up the application into small, self-contained chunks with standard interfaces. Each chunk is a service, and it performs a basic task. Other software developers can reuse those services so they don’t repeat others’ work.

For example, Kost said, multiple programs could access a single eligibility determination service containing all the business rules, rather than embedding eligibility rules within each application.
“It’s relatively easy to do that now,” Kost said.

A separate module for rules also makes it easier to keep eligibility determinations up-to-date with legislative changes, McCurley said.

“Everybody is either thinking about or moving toward it,” said Sundhar Sekhar, a Deloitte Consulting principal. He cited Florida, which has hired Deloitte to supply programmers, as an example. The state’s Department of Children and Families has a Web application for benefits applications, called Automated Community Connection to Economic Self-Sufficiency (ACCESS).

“SOA allows us to build off an existing stack and drop user interfaces in pretty quickly,” said William McKibben, an application architect at Deloitte working on ACCESS. Some of the reusable services are basic, McKibben said, such as an address check function. So far, ACCESS has not implemented an enterprise service bus or a registry, though keeping track of available services will soon become a challenge, he added.

Perera (dave@dperera.com) is a freelance writer. 

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