Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / November 30, 1997
"Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."

-- Thomas Jefferson, 1816

Editor in Chief

This month, Government Technology features an article by Associate Editor Tod Newcombe on California's Statewide Automated Welfare System (SAWS), a nearly 25-year effort to automate welfare programs in the state. The California welfare automation saga is vital reading for federal, state and local governments as they increasingly depend on technology to help run their operations.

A frustrating and largely futile effort, California's attempt at automating the nation's largest welfare caseload illustrates that it is not technology, but the human factors of leadership, public policy and politics, that provides the greatest roadblocks to the effective deployment of information technology.

While there is a great deal of complexity to California's welfare automation dilemma -- including slow-moving procurement systems in the fast lane of evolving technology -- many of the issues California faced could have been resolved with a more realistic understanding of the appropriate role each level of government -- federal, state and local -- plays in California's welfare system.

In fact, establishing the correct role that each level of government must assume in public service delivery today is more important than ever. Beyond SAWS, if Congress plans to see its historic welfare reform initiative -- The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- succeed, it will require sane intergovernmental cooperation, and that is a goal many believe impossible.

When Congress and the president enacted the landmark 1996 welfare reform bill, they set broad new policy and social goals for the nation's welfare system. The danger is that Congress' vision may be doomed to failure for much the same reasons that helped drive California's SAWS initiative onto the rocks -- an over-aggressive federal encroachment into details best left to state and local government.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act is loaded with tactical reporting minutia that may be impossible to accomplish. For example, as detailed in our cover story on welfare reform last month [Government Technology, November 1997], the legislation establishes dozens of new categories of individuals who are barred from receiving welfare benefits, including families with a minor child absent from the home for a significant period, unmarried teen parents not living in an adult supervised setting, those violating probation or parole, unmarried teen parents not attending school -- the list goes on.

Today, most states are in a quandary over how to implement these complex details of federal welfare reform. Certainly, Congress and the president need reliable information on the results of welfare programs in the states. They would be better served, however, to set a few broad outcome measures in line with the legislation's overall objectives, instead of resorting to pages of unrealistic detail.

The tragedy will be if states push ahead to build information systems around impossible data requirements. Good information systems can't be built on bad public policy. States could easily end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars in trying to build "statewide" information systems that county governments will find useless in the day-to-day business of social service delivery.

The best course is for federal, state and local governments to come together now and better delineate the proper roles and responsibilities of each in accomplishing the objectives of welfare reform as set out by Congress.

To this end, Government Technology urges that each state convene its own "Intergovernmental Welfare Summit." Each meeting should draw key players from across that state and local landscape, including legislators, mayors, county supervisors, the state's congressional delegation and executives from state agencies and departments. The federal executive branch should also participate. Certainly, these events will be political -- that comes with the territory -- but from these summits a better understanding and delineation of responsibilities can be established for each level of government involved with welfare reform in that region.

The critical factor -- as welfare reform evangelist Larry Singer points out -- is staying committed to the major goal of ending welfare as we know it and building a system that truly works for our citizens.

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