On June 3, 1991, Los Angeles County used finger-imaging technology for the first time to curb fraud in its General Relief welfare program. Within six months, the county stated that it had saved $5.4 million, thanks to the technology.

Just about everybody in state and local government sat up and took notice. Yet today, almost five years later, only a handful of counties are running finger-imaging programs for welfare applicants and just one state is finger-imaging applicants on a statewide basis.

One vendor called welfare finger-imaging a "no-brainer," adding that the systems pay for themselves in less than a year. Yet the vendor, like others, has been clearly frustrated by the slow growth of civil finger-imaging in the government sector.

For those who track technology in the public sector, the situation with finger-imaging is all too familiar. A new technology comes along and quickly delivers the kind of benefits that businesses in the private sector would jump at. Yet, for a number of reasons, government is slow to accept the technology. "It reminds me of the slow growth for electronic benefits transfer," remarked Rick Ferreira, government affairs representative for human services policy at EDS.

Electronic benefits transfer took so long to grow because of the inordinate amount of time states needed to develop the necessary RFP process and to leap some federal regulatory hurdles. The same thing is happening with finger-imaging, according to Ferreira, but with the added problem of states having to overcome the social concerns -- some might call it timidity -- about fingerprinting welfare applicants.

Whatever the reasons, state and local governments now willing to consider finger-imaging for welfare programs will find that the technology is more robust and less expensive than when it was first introduced five years ago. And the quick paybacks remain.

A QUESTION OF FRAUD

Los Angeles County actually began manually fingerprinting welfare applicants in 1986, when the county's Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), the second largest county-operated welfare department in the U.S., was required to provide housing benefits to homeless applicants without identification. Fearing abuse, the DPSS began manually fingerprinting and photographing applicants as a way to deter fraud in its General Relief program. Within three years, the county had a stack of 50,000 fingerprint cards and little in the way of results. Realizing that the existing system wasn't working, the county began to investigate automated fingerprint identification systems currently in use by law enforcement agencies.

The question of fraud -- or, more precisely, how much fraud -- has always been a contentious one in the welfare arena. Nationally, welfare experts believe that fraud -- and waste -- could be costing the American taxpayer more than $40 billion per year. But few states or counties can point to any actual figures on fraud when asked why they need finger-imaging.

"It was just the normal suspicion that people were trying to cheat welfare," said Bob Modell, San Diego County's data processing manager, when explaining why his government is investing in finger-imaging for welfare.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Weld has proposed finger-imaging the Commonwealth's 92,000 families who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Weld administration officials have no estimates on how many cases of fraud or double-dipping exist to justify investing in a system that will cost taxpayers $3 million per year. However, they counter by saying that finger-imaging discourages cheating and fraud from the outset. And even if the state's welfare rolls are reduced by just 25 to 50 cases per month, the system will still pay for itself.

While states can proceed with finger-imaging AFDC recipients statewide, counties must receive a federal waiver if they plan to finger-image the welfare recipients on their own, according to Ferreira. Currently, only Los Angeles County has such a waiver. Food Stamps is less of a problem, however. Counties as well as