Back to square one on welfare reform

After a year and a half of working in its secluded policy labs, the Department of Health and Human Services finally told Congress what the state information technology community has known for some time: The agency cannot unreservedly recommend a single centralized computer architecture to handle the job of tracking welfare case data among the states.

HHS had been asked to assess the ability of state information systems to absorb program changes implied in the 1996 welfare reform law. One of the key requirements was a system that would enable the states to exchange welfare case data in order to track a five-year limit on certain benefits imposed by the law. In the early going, HHS supported developing and maintaining a large national system, dubbed the Family Assistance Case-Tracking System (FACTS), to track the data.

Now, after delaying the report for a year and a half, HHS has backed off its intention to recommend a federally managed computer system. "Although states have experience with exchanging information, the legislation implies an exchange of information between states that is unprecedented and requires a capability that does not currently exist," HHS said in its report. Instead, HHS gave Congress three options: select an architecture for development; specify an "evolutionary approach"; or appropriate funds to put in place a FACTS steering committee.

The HHS report raises a number of questions about the agency's handling of this problem. For example, why did it take the agency a year and a half to conclude that it was not feasible for HHS to manage a central tracking system-a fact the states have known since the law was first passed? And why did the agency conduct its study without full and open consultation with state and local government IT professionals who would be asked to build this system?

HHS' anemic conclusions also throw into question the role of the federal government in developing and setting state information systems standards for federal programs. From the creation of the FBI's National Crime Information Center to the attempt to establish a national electronic benefits delivery system, these programs have suffered from a lack of intergovernmental coordination and problem-solving.

The agency's final conclusions on a national case-tracking system appear to leave Congress right back at square one. Perhaps it is time for Congress to hand the job over to those who will really manage the system: the state and local government IT community. And maybe it is time for HHS to lead or get out of the way.

Paul McCloskey

Editor

civic.com

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