Developing a SACWIS in a controversy-charged environment is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks a human services agency can face, he added. "The constant criticism makes it worse. Your staff gets totally demoralized when they just get beat up every single day in the newspapers."

Alabama also confronted a lawsuit and subsequent rebuilding process. Perhaps the biggest problem the state faced was coping with the demands of litigation, said Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, and former director of the Alabama Division of Family and Children's Services.

"New Jersey is still in litigation, and is probably going through discovery -- which is enormously time consuming," he said, adding that Alabama devoted a senior staff member and several other employees almost exclusively to preparing documents requested during the two-year discovery process.

"We were forever extracting reams of data [plaintiffs] asked for, and sending them policies and case information," Vincent said. "Given everything else that goes on when you're trying to turn a [child welfare] system around, having that additional workload adds another level of complexity, another project to manage and another demand for resources."

There's also a chance the terms of a legal settlement or ruling will predispose the SACWIS deployment to failure.

"The many competing demands for system improvement that would occur if there was a settlement or a court order are going to make it more difficult to have the single-minded focus on SACWIS that you'd want to have during the development phase," he said. "That's a risk, and there will be some sense of urgency about finishing it. There are some pieces of this work that can't be hurried too much."

Managing Expectations

New Jersey's DHS and DYFS may be under considerable scrutiny, but Goldhagen said the project team isn't dwelling on managing the controversy associated with that scrutiny. Instead its focus is on managing expectations.

"The pressure we feel from different places, which includes from within DYFS, is at this point, 'How fast can we close the gap?'" Goldhagen said. "We're not feeling a lot of pressure for the entire system to come out earlier or faster, but it's a challenge we handle on almost a daily basis -- to keep answering those questions, and to make sure people know what's in front of them and understand how much work this is. It's an education game."

Delays also have another unfortunate side effect, said Londregan: The longer the state is without a SACWIS, the more people expect from the system once it's implemented.

"You hear all the time, 'SACWIS will solve that' or 'SACWIS will fix that,'" he said. "The longer that goes on, the more it does frighten us that the expectations keep growing and growing. That is a lesson learned from other states. You have to make sure people have good expectations about what SACWIS can and can't do."

In addition, Goldhagen and Londregan said they are spending a lot of time making sure people understand that automation also may demand improved business processes. They intend to avoid automating existing practices that don't work or don't follow a standard.

"Part of software development is looking at those business processes, coming together and making decisions about the way the entire state wants to do something, rather than having things done slightly different depending on which particular office you go to, or which part of the state you go to," Londregan said.

Over the last two months, the SACWIS team concentrated on opening communication lines with all the agencies and branches of government involved -- DHS, senior leadership at DYFS, the Legislature, the Governor's Office -- so all parties know exactly what the state faces during the implementation, Goldhagen said.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor