In ancient Greek mythology there was the story of Jason and the Argonauts. They were enticed to sail their boats toward treacherous rocks by the sweet song of sirens. Their adventure calls to mind the experience of human services information technology professionals drawn into expensive and high-risk projects, without adequate planning, by the appeal of "enhanced funding" from the federal government.

The latest example is the promise of 75 percent matching funds, for a 25 percent state government investment in state automated child welfare information systems known as SACWIS. In order to receive the matching funds, states and their contractors must complete the implementation of federally recommended functionality by October 1996. States are rewarded for what many might describe as "quick and dirty" implementations, where speed of installation is of the highest priority.

The SACWIS systems specifications, which call for much-needed new functionality to support the adoption, foster care and child protective services programs, are ripe with complex rules and high transaction rates. The funding formulas strongly encourage the adoption of new client/server implementations, with more immediate payment for items like personal computers that cost $5,000 or less, and delayed payments for more expensive mainframe and server platforms. The factors of complexity, size and the adoption of leading-edge technologies -- added to the fact that many of the case workers who will be the end users of these systems are not experienced with computing -- all add risk to the development and deployment of these multi-million dollar projects.

It may sound like I'm opposed to the SACWIS systems and the fact that their development is encouraged by Health and Human Services leadership from Washington, D.C. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that one of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to provide infrastructure, like that represented by this key system architecture. I believe the functionality prescribed by the HHS team is necessary and sorely needed.

What I am opposed to is the deadline imposed, and the carelessness exercised in the breakneck pace encouraged by the lure of "other peoples money." Some states -- like Colorado -- have exercised great restraint and foresight by recognizing the need for SACWIS functionality, while not rushing headlong into a strategy that puts speed ahead of thoughtful planning, analysis and design. They have taken this strategy because they understand the risks and complexities of this system, and the necessity of its successful implementation.

Ken Muroya, a systems manager at the Colorado Department of Human Services said that his "department has always had a philosophy which says that they have to prove a good business case and demonstrate that they have fully analyzed all options and information needs before starting a large systems effort." He also said that "philosophy explains our success in the past and having all of our human services systems certified as functional and fulfilling their intended purpose."

Colorado and some other leading states have placed a higher premium on meeting the needs of their child welfare programs than on receiving enhanced funding. Other less enlightened states have issued requests for proposals (RFPs) that have unreasonable and unachievable delivery schedules as their key feature. These RFPs include massive financial penalties for contractors and integrators that do not achieve required time goals. The latter approach will certainly result in systems that will be difficult to maintain or enhance, even if they are successfully deployed, but more likely will result in failed efforts and lawsuits.

We have historical precedence showing that these large social services projects require very careful consideration and planning, and may require mid-project changes of direction. Strategic systems efforts that are large and complex should encourage conservatism and flexibility, not be focused on speed at all costs.

Check out your own state and see if the Child Support Enforcement systems that were begun over

Larry Singer  |  Contributing Writer