Child Support System Rescued

North Carolina rescues its federally mandated automated child support system from almost certain derailment.

by / July 31, 1997
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 a hot dog and we were expecting a hamburger."

"Every time the state pointed out that the system was inconsistent with state or county requirements, the vendor would tell us that it was working as designed and specified," said Cooke. "And since the specifications were so vague, they were right -- no matter whether the system could be implemented as designed."

It soon became apparent that this was not just a technical project, as originally thought. The project was really a child support project, and the state's people knew more about child support than the vendor and DIRM.

A year and a half into the project, NCDHR hired a new DIRM director, Bill Cox. Upon inspecting the project, Cox concluded that meeting the federal card deck was only one of the critical success factors of the ACTS project. "The system had to meet the needs of three customers," Cox said, "the federal government, the state and the counties. The system had to be usable, available, responsive to state rules and regulations as well as federal ones, and had to be flexible enough to support the different approaches of court orders."

He insisted that the state assert itself as the master over this project, instead of handing it over to the vendor. And he said North Carolina's human resources staff, who are responsible for child support, should be working alongside DIRM.

The State Takes Over
When Cox came onboard, the whole game changed. The first thing he did was hire a new project manager, Randy Cooke. Cooke and Cox took advantage of the deadline extension in 1995 to make state officials -- all the way up to Gov. Jim Hunt -- aware that this project was going to fail if it continued on its course.

Cooke told the vendor that its approach -- to build the system to meet federal level-one certification requirements first, and fix it to meet state needs later -- was unacceptable. The state then entered into negotiations with the vendor for a new project plan, but couldn't reach an agreement, and the contract with ISSC was not renewed. The vendor had already implemented version one of ACTS in two counties, and the counties and the state both found that version totally unacceptable. The state took over the project.

Cooke empowered the county DSS directors, the clerks and their partners from ACF to fix things. Cox opened a new project office that co-located the functional staff and the IT staff. The technical subcontractors to ISSC were all retained, with assistance from the ACF team members, and an all-out effort was initiated to put things back on track.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Cooke, will be integrating several different formats. "The data that runs child support comes from different sources -- state systems, county PC-based systems, paper records and more," she said. "All need to be cleaned up and put into the new system before it is usable."

The pilot sites needed the system to be fully functional. There was a new focus -- assuring that the system could not only run the federal test, but also be consistent with state rules and regulations. Even though version one could run most of the card deck, it could not handle a large portion of the state's actual cases, types not represented in the card deck.

"The card deck accounted only for monthly court orders," said McGee, "but the courts actually had orders that needed to be enforced weekly, bi-monthly, quarterly, even every eight days."

"The judges can collect to reflect payrolls, or to meet whatever criteria they want," Cooke said. "It is their courtroom, and the system needed to meet their needs, and could not impose monthly time limits on the judge."

The first version of the program also failed to meet some federal requirements. For example, bank reconciliation was supposed to match a date with a file date in the system. ISSC had selected the issue date, but the banks were using another date, and the dates never matched. These types of problems were addressed without costly vendor change orders.

When the new system was sent to two pilot counties, users were flabbergasted by the new technology. "Most of these counties had no technology at all to support child support enforcement activities," said Cox. "Bringing these new systems in is a shock. They need to be given time to acclimate to the new technology."

In September, ACTS version three -- which meets all federal requirements -- will begin statewide rollout.

Larry Singer -- an expert on strategic computing with 12 years experience in the information technology industry serving all levels of government -- is president of Public Interest Breakthroughs Inc., of Vienna, Va. E-mail:
Larry Singer Contributing Writer