January 31, 1998 By Tod Newcombe
Assemblywoman Alquist doesn't believe counties exert too much power on IT projects; but other critics of SACSS have pointed out that the majority of the states with the most trouble automating their child support systems have politically strong county governments.
What does trouble Alquist has been the oversight, or the lack of it, on the project. "It was obvious to us early on that the project was not working well, yet it took DSS a while to admit something was wrong," she pointed out. "In February 1997, both the vendor and the state gave no indication of how bad the situation had become. Even as recently as one month ago [October 1997], at an oversight hearing, we weren't told how bad the situation was."
Alquist's committee report criticized Flynn's office, the Dept. of Information Technology (DOIT), for its slow reaction to the growing crisis over SACSS. "How bad does a particular project need to become before the state's information technology czar considers termination?" asked the report when it was published in April 1997.
When Flynn pulled the plug on SACSS in November, Alquist and others praised the CIO for finally taking decisive action. Flynn explained that the decision to terminate the SACSS contract took so long because there were so many issues at stake. In particular, he pointed out that "one-third of the counties had the system up and running. We had to take that situation into consideration," said Flynn. "Termination was the last resort."
The Next Step
With California and Lockheed unable to come to financial terms on how to save SACSS, the state has had approximately 90 days in which to come up with an alternative plan for federal approval and financing. One option is to adopt a system from one of the counties where child support has been automated.
The dilemma for California is to come up with a design that meets the vastly different needs of the counties without automation and still have a viable, single system that meets federal requirements. Unlike SAWS, which currently involves several consortia of counties building different systems, child support automation must be centralized, according to Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. "We believe in the principle of a single statewide system because of the requirement for a national directory [containing names of noncustodial parents]," he said. Without single systems in each state to make data sharing more manageable, building a national directory will be extremely difficult, according to Kharfen.
Alquist hopes that DOIT and HWDC get the ball rolling again. She said the state must move quickly on a plan that addresses functionality, time and cost. In addition, the Legislative Analyst's Office urged the state to take steps that ensure a new contract is based on performance; breaks the outcome down to smaller, more manageable projects; requires the vendor to share in the financial risk of the project; allows payment to the vendor only upon acceptance of deliverables; and requires that contract and project management be carried out by qualified, experienced personnel.
In Alameda County, one of the few counties with a working child support system, automation has vastly improved how the county manages its 60,000 cases. "Automation is absolutely core to child support," said Otterbeck. "It has meant the difference between an excellent program and one that is barely serviceable."
For other counties that have waited for SACSS, the situation doesn't look good. Welfare reform has added more reporting requirements to the beleaguered child support offices. Counties (under state oversight) must meet these requirements to be eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block-grant funding. With one estimate for completing a new system at three years, counties could be in for a long wait.
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