Federal penalties could make the situation worse.

According to Kharfen, HHS doesn't want to take money away from states, "but penalties are the only control we have. We want good systems, but we want them done on time," he added.

Limited Leadership

When the federal deadline of Oct. 1, 1997 for state automation came and went, only 17 states were certified as meeting all the requirements of the federal mandate for developing a statewide child support enforcement system. To state officials, the numbers were further proof of how unrealistic federal deadlines and requirements have become.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has also criticized HHS for what it calls "limited leadership" that has inhibited states' progress with child support automation. In particular, GAO cited HHS for its failure to: require states to follow a structured, disciplined approach to systems development; to assess whether a sufficient number of systems were available for transfer to other states; and for putting states in the position of having to present inaccurate and sometimes impossible schedules showing that they would meet federal deadlines.

What remains unclear is the public reaction to ongoing expenditures of taxpayer funds for information systems that fail to work as originally intended or not at all. While the complexities of computer technology may be difficult to grasp for many citizens, they do understand the value of money. If systems such as SACSS continue to stumble, then citizens and Congress may begin to question why so much is spent with so little to show for it.

February Table of Contents