Throughout the nation, state and federal officials are expecting an increased collection of court-ordered child support payments from non-custodial parents to offset the cost of operating human services programs. Some of the most powerful tools being deployed by government to enforce the child support orders are large-scale information systems. Unfortunately for the state budget directors, human services agency executives, county courts and custodial parents who are counting on information technology, many of the large-scale child support enforcement systems are failing.

Every state government has taken advantage of enhanced federal funding to finance mandated statewide child support enforcement information systems. The federal moneys came with a couple of serious conditions. One condition required each state to complete its system and meet two different levels of certification prior to a federally mandated deadline. Any state not meeting the deadline would have to repay all the federal funds they had received to develop the new information systems. To date, most states have already received tens of millions of dollars -- some hundreds of millions -- to build these information systems. But only a handful of state government child support initiatives have been certified as functional by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the Department of Health and Human Services. As many as 40 states will not meet the ACF certification deadline of October 1997, and the deadline was already extended by a year from the original October 1996 date.

To be certified, the federal rules say each state must demonstrate that their systems are functional by running a "card deck" -- a sampling of child-support-related financial transactions -- with no errors. The second level of certification requires states to successfully deploy and begin operation of their system statewide.

Another restriction that came along with the "free" federal money was that states had to choose from a handful of "transfer" systems -- systems the federal government decided could be used off-the-shelf, with some modification, by every state. The federal logic was that it would be less costly to the nation as a whole to build a few systems and then re-deploy them multiple times, rather than build as many as 50 different state systems separately.

So why have so few states been successful in meeting the federal certification conditions, given ample funding, extra time and a head start by transferring in a federally approved base system? There are many answers to that question, and a look at North Carolina's successful child support system, the Automated Collection and Tracking System (ACTS), may help shed some light.

North Carolina

Like many other states, North Carolina started its project early in 1993. North Carolina administers all human services, including child support enforcement, through its 100 county governments.

In 1993, the North Carolina Department of Human Resources (NCDHR) hired ISSC, IBM's systems integration subsidiary, to build the system. "We assumed that the vendor knew more than we did," said Dick McGee, the quality assurance and control specialist for NCDHR's Division of Information Resource Management (DIRM). "We hired them because they are the pros." McGee's department had decided ACTS was a technical systems project, so a technology vendor should be responsible for it, while DIRM was the vendor's interface with the department.

ISSC focused on meeting federal certification requirements, and designed the system's code to run the card deck. "ISSC imported the Virginia child support system and, to meet federal deadlines, they made assumptions about how to implement it in North Carolina," said Randy Cooke, the current ACTS project manager. "They told state officials and project teams that any state 'interference' would risk the timeline and cost the state the whole of the federal funds."

The original specifications the state gave to the vendor were vague, McGee said. "They were analogous to detail at the level of 'build us a sandwich,' but they built us

Larry Singer  |  Contributing Writer