for states, Horn said the HHS's overarching goal is straightforward -- to give state and local health and human services agencies the resources to build a tool that helps caseworkers manage their case loads. The HHS also stands to benefit from improved case-management practices.

Horn explained that more states successfully rolling out SACWIS means federal policy makers can rely on data from local, state, regional and national levels that's collected in nearly real time.

"We can make policy decisions based upon good information, rather than on mere supposition as to what's going on in the child welfare system," he said.

HHS officials aren't concerned about how long it has taken states to implement SACWIS, he said, partly because federal officials understand the process foists cultural change on agencies that may not welcome it.

"A truly integrated SACWIS can help to facilitate -- and maybe even force -- coordination across different silos of social services delivery systems," Horn said.

Historically HHS officials have focused on individual social programs, such as child welfare systems, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), child-care subsidies or even juvenile justice. This tunnel vision has led to information systems that only serve specific agencies with no capacity for information sharing.

"While they're not exactly the same population, they're overlapping populations," Horn said. "The TANF program doesn't coordinate with the child welfare program. The child welfare program doesn't coordinate with the child-care program. We act as if the only system that this child interacts with is the one we're involved in.

"The big, grand vision in social service delivery to children and families has always been integrated services. This technology has the ability to facilitate that integrated service delivery we've all been talking about for 30 years."

Besides the technology solutions to eliminating information silos, the HHS is presenting a legislative solution to Congress to address a primary culprit in information-silo making -- federal funding by category.

"We have a proposal before Congress to break down the categorical walls of the funding streams within the child welfare system," Horn said. "One of our proposals is to provide federal money much more flexibly to states so they don't just spend it on child welfare, but they have a lot more flexibility in determining exactly how they spend the money."

Data Differences

States' struggles with designing a SACWIS don't fall into clear-cut categories, but one particular issue tends to plague large IT projects that impact multiple branches of government -- getting a diverse collection of state and local agencies to agree on system design.

The GAO studied New York state's SACWIS effort and found a cross-government bottleneck. The state's counties administer child welfare services, and the GAO learned that SACWIS development ground to a halt when commissioners from five large counties and New York City expressed frustration with the proposed SACWIS design.

That frustration led local government officials to ask the state to stop SACWIS development, according to the GAO, until the state reassessed the SACWIS design and implementation plans.

After that reassessment, state officials altered the project plan and created statewide work groups to bring all counties into agreement on the system design, the GAO said, and the state hired a contractor to monitor SACWIS development and ensure all users' requirements received serious consideration.

States also told the GAO that another design challenge is creating a SACWIS that reflects child welfare work processes and is user-friendly, a problem also identified in the HHS's reviews of states' systems.

In the federal SACWIS review, one state explained that it designed its SACWIS to meet caseworker needs and mirror child welfare work processes by developing a system that required events to be documented as they occurred, the GAO

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor