Reaching the Poor Via High Tech

Despite funding cuts, states are finding ways to use information technology to help society's most underprivileged families and individuals, concluded a recent study by the National Association for State Information Resource Executives, the organization representing state government chief information officers.

The study, "State Human Service Information Systems: Measuring the Impact of Welfare Reform," was conducted for NASIRE by Public Interest Breakthroughs, a charitable not-for-profit corporation, with funding in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The study shows that states have embarked on modernization efforts with new IT capabilities as the core.

The new systems efforts reportedly are not confined to "program silos" like the federally directed initiatives undertaken during the past 20 years.

The child support, child welfare and income support systems that were built with federal largess in the form of "enhanced funding" — which allowed states to build systems for a small investment — led to systems that did not reflect the complex needs of the hardest-to-serve clients — those who are still on the financial assistance roles.

The efforts that states reported in the survey show cross-program initiatives covering labor, social services and health agencies, among others.

The current efforts reportedly are directed at preserving the gains states have made through welfare reform efforts, while ensuring that eligible Medicaid and food stamp recipients are fairly served.

The recent modernization activities, initiated since the advent of welfare reform, leverage the availability of the new technologies associated with network-based computing and self-service e-commerce models, and are largely Internet based.

Where IT projects traditionally were run by IT departments, key executives from human services, children and family agencies and health departments were reported to be increasingly taking leadership roles in human services IT projects.

What is perhaps even more noteworthy is the level of involvement of governors and their budget advisers in the newer initiatives. The cost of human services initiatives would draw attention, but it appears from the survey responses that this high-level involvement goes beyond initial budget approvals and continues throughout project initiation and development activities.

Those findings are consistent with the evolving role of IT in enterprise activities throughout government and the private sector. IT, once relegated to the back room, has become an important tool in implementing strategic initiatives.

Human services reform efforts have provided governors and their administrations with a demonstrable success. Systems that will institutionalize their administration's gains become the legacy that will remain as political changeovers occur. It appears from the new involvement of key executives that they recognize the political, programmatic and enterprise importance of IT.

The survey indicates that more than $4.2 billion is budgeted annually for human services information technology for the 33 responding states (three of the 36 states participating in the survey did not respond to this question). That's an imposing figure, but consider that if the reported rate were used to extrapolate a figure that includes all 50 states, the figure would top $6 billion annually.

Even that figure may not include all IT spending for the human services enterprise. Only Arizona was able to report an accurate accounting of all IT expenditures. That's because no state reports that they have an "IT budget." The cost of IT initiatives is "buried" in the individual program budgets.

Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, 86 percent of the responding states indicated an increase in IT spending exclusive of Year 2000. Four of the responding states indicated decreases in spending.

The NASIRE study clearly indicates that despite reductions in state welfare caseloads, IT spending has generally increased and become an area of management focus. Despite the continued IT investment, the study shows a drastic reduction in the number of large procurements of outsourced development and implementation efforts.

This is a significant change from the past. States seem to be disappointed with the results of the historically large procurement efforts. The study shows that they are breaking the new projects into smaller, more manageable increments.

The message in the study is that in this time of rapid change in the delivery of human services, IT strategy and investment continues to be a strategic component of states' efforts.

Singer is president of Public Interest Breakthroughs (www.p-i-b.org), a not-for-profit corporation with a mission to help human services incorporate information technology into their public policy strategies.

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