Reaching the Poor Via High Tech
- By Larry Singer
- Apr 03, 2000
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
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
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
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
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
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.