Raising Tennessee Kids
- By Jane Morrissey
- Jan 31, 1999
Tennessee faced a formidable management and technology task two years ago when it decided to consolidate six children's services agencies into one. Perhaps the most basic and overwhelming task was combining its myriad legacy welfare systems into one workable, streamlined solution.
So the state's new Department of Children's Services (DCS) took several steps that state governments do not often take in the current marketplace: It started from scratch, to serve as its own systems integrator and to work off of existing state contracts for products and services.
This unusual course of action presented unique challenges. But a new system is about to be launched that for the first time promises to give the state's caseworkers immediate access to all the information about any child involved in any program within the state's welfare system.
"In the past, services were not being coordinated as well as they could, and our costs were escalating almost on a straight-line slope upwards. Honestly, it became that we were seeking the dollars rather than seeking services for the kids," said Ed Cole, DCS' chief information officer. "Until we had a better handle on actually managing children, there really wasn't going to be coordinated service delivery."
The basis of that coordination is the Tennessee Kids Information Delivery System, or TN KIDS, which is being rolled out in phases. Besides putting less of an immediate strain on resources and end users, a phased approach will allow the department to keep the system up to date with new policies and technologies.
In the first phase, new PCs and office automation software were introduced last year to the department's 3,000 users. Now trained on Microsoft Corp. Windows applications, DCS workers are gearing up for Phase Two: the first release of a TN KIDS application. Initially, it will allow workers to enter child information and access legacy data via a Windows interface.
Over subsequent phases, TN KIDS will add case management features, handle assessment and funding tasks, and link to the juvenile court system. Long term, the goal is to enable TN KIDS on the World Wide Web so that each child will, in effect, have a home page.
"I think the approach that Tennessee is taking to child care is unique," said Bradley Dugger, the state's chief information officer. "It focuses on how the child is being served as a whole and not just [on[ a child's mental health, or security, or financial needs or discipline. With the system, we've tried to make sure caseworkers and field people don't become a slave to the technology but that the technology is truly assisting them."
Initially, TN KIDS will consist of intake functions from courts and community referrals, search functions and skeletal features in areas such as eligibility. The idea is to build the database first-know who the child is and where he is-before attempting anything else.
"If there's a court order or if Child Protective Services gets a call from law enforcement in the middle of night and they have access to TN KIDS, they can see if the child is in the system in any way," Cole said. Caseworkers have a free-format interface allowing them to fill out a form when entering a child into the system. Or, if pressed for time, workers can enter case notes and work them into the forms later.
"This will allow the caseworkers to be more productive," Dugger said. "And it allows department policy-makers to identify trends in assistance, look at outcomes based on those trends and see where we need to put the emphasis in the future."
DCS had a lot of freedom when it came to funding the system. Its source-a federal Health and Human Services Department Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System grant-did not impose the rigid requirements and financial caps of many other grant programs. After a small hurdle to prove the department would be relying on a competitive bid process with its state contract approach, DCS got what it asked for: a three-year, $35 million budget for hardware, software and development.
In other ways, DCS' options were limited. To avoid the distraction of procurement and to ensure support by the state data center, the department opted to rely on state contracts and standards as much as possible. The downside: having to forgo DCS' preferred choice for certain products and services.
DCS also chose to serve as its own systems integrator, despite plenty of pressure from those involved in other states' children's services programs-not to mention vendors-to use a systems integrator on the project and to leverage other state systems.
But Tennessee wasn't like other states. DCS was a new department without pre-existing business rules that could dictate whether a system from Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana or any other state could fit. "We were probably going to make more changes and spend more money than we would if we just built it from the ground up," Cole said.
Because the department could not fully articulate its needs, writing a request for proposals also was out of the question. A management committee, including program and systems staff, came up with a phased approach to accommodate evolving business goals. By design, there is no target completion date for the project. DCS has assumed the role of integrator and uses contract developers to plug technical gaps in state staffing. Tennessee hopes to avoid pitfalls experienced by other states now locked into rigid systems and going through "change-order frenzy" to modify them with systems integrators, Cole said.
DCS did, however, rely heavily on help from other states. In the design phase, Oklahoma's child welfare system and a federal government prototype were put in front of Tennessee's users, who helped identify what worked for them.
And the department learned lessons from the experience of Arizona, which tried to convert Child Protective Services (CPS) data into its new system but found so many errors that the effort was aborted halfway through.
Tennessee decided not to convert its CPS data and instead is making the data accessible via an archive. Otherwise, DCS is converting foster care, adoption and other databases using a stepping-stone approach, melding one legacy system into another before converting it into formats for TN KIDS.
The department has tackled one Oracle Corp. database conversion so far. "That process was rough, mapping was awkward, and the data quality was terrible," Cole said. "I'm very pleased we used this two-step process, the first conversion really gave us an opportunity to do some massive data cleanup."
So far, the TN KIDS rollout is on schedule and is expected to result in efficiency benefits of more than $3 million a year. The plan is to funnel that money into more service improvements, such as prevention programs, not to reduce the budget."It's heresy in state government to say that we would add staff, but if there are areas where that's needed, I would hope at least the funding issue isn't as critical," Cole said. "I think the most important benefit of TN KIDS is not tangible, it's the quality of care to kids. The real issue is getting the right services to the child that will move them to some form of permanent living environment."
-- Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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TN KIDS At A Glance
* What: Tennessee's Department of Children's Services statewide network promises unified access to child welfare records.
* Department Payback: Ends duplicate and incomplete information fostered by legacy systems across six agencies. DCS expects an annual benefit in excess of $3 million.
* Citizen Impact: Children can be tracked more closely and efficiently, resulting in better planning that moves them more quickly to a permanent solution.
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Working the System
Working within state contracts has it benefits, especially in getting government rates without wasting time in procurement. But in some cases that may mean forgoing tools of first choice.
For instance, Tennessee's Department of Children's Services' intent was to use an Ethernet topology, but the state standard at the time was Token Ring. Likewise, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT was DCS' first choice for a desktop system, but Windows 95 was the standard. Going with Token Ring and Windows 95 wasn't a make-or-break decision, but it amounted to more work. The good news is that the state is moving to Ethernet and Windows NT as standards. The bad news is that DCS now has to upgrade the TN KIDS infrastructure to what the department wanted in the first place.
The choice of development tools wasn't ideal either. Oracle was the database of choice, and the DCS staff was leaning toward Oracle Corp. development tools. But the state data center's expertise was in Sybase Inc.'s PowerBuilder. Certainly, they are compatible, but using Oracle tools would have eliminated some hitches with integration. Fortunately, the state did have strong agreements with both vendors, allowing DCS to bring them on-site to resolve problems. State and contract staff members said the resulting interface was worth the extra effort.
"I don't think PowerBuilder is a great prototyping tool," said Jim Miller, lead consultant with Science Applications International Corp. "It's a lot of work, but it also gave us a tab interface which a lot of other tools wouldn't be able to do."
SAIC is the largest of several consulting firms that DCS is using for contract staff. Of the project's 75-member staff, 60 percent are contractors. "If we hadn't had that contract availability, I'm not sure we could have done this project," said Ed Cole, the CIO of DCS.
Wally Kaine, senior vice president at SAIC, said, "The partnership has helped the smoothness of the program. The expectations of what we are doing are very well understood since we are working as an integrated team."
DCS had to procure training on its own, because the state did not have anyone under contract who could handle 3,000 trainees. "The challenge is finishing the curriculum, and now that we've completed Novell GroupWise training, thinking of things that could have been done a little differently so they improve as training moves across the state," said Diane Easterly, a DCS team coordinator.
DCS also is working to develop "superusers" in each county. Staff members would go to these superusers with questions about the system.
The phased approach should ease the transition as well. "A phased-in approach gives them more manageable amounts of information to deal with and makes training more successful, which makes culture change more effective," said Andy Dziewulski, an SAIC senior program specialist.
- Jane Morrissey
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TN KIDS Building Blocks
The core of Tennessee's TN KIDS will be an Oracle Corp. Oracle8 database on Compaq Computer Corp. or Hewlett-Packard Co. servers running Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris operating system. The 10 to 12 servers will be consolidated at the state's data center in Nashville. Novell Inc.'s NetWare will be the local-area network operating system, with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT at the desktop.
The initial rollout of Compaq PCs (Intel Corp. Pentium 130 MHz and 155 MHz with 16M of memory) proved to be insufficient to run TN KIDS and Windows NT, so the Department of Children's Services is upgrading to Pentium 350 MHz machines with 128M of memory.
Along with the TN KIDS front end, each desktop will have Microsoft Office and Novell GroupWise for e-mail and calendaring. DCS is tying the system to the state's wide-area network to handle remote connections.
-- Jane Morrissey