Welfare Puzzle

Is there a way to balance the competing needs of access and privacy? Should the Social Security Administration try again to make some of their information available on the Web?

by / June 30, 1998
Since welfare reform passed two years ago, state and local agencies have begun to grapple with fundamental changes in the purpose of public assistance and in the information systems needed to support it. And while most applaud the welfare-to-jobs focus, the "devil in the details" -- such as new federal data reporting requirements -- has effectively halted state human services information systems development, according to a new report on welfare reform.

The report, Welfare Reform: Information Systems and the States, prepared by Public Interest Breakthroughs for the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE), is the first concerted response by the states to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), more commonly known as welfare reform.

Information systems -- which Richard Nathan of the Rockefeller Institute called "the spinal columns of welfare modernization" -- must be redesigned, but devolution, which was supposed to allow greater freedom for states to work out the details, has instead, says the report, led to additional federal micromanagement, a threefold increase in federal reporting requirements and other burdens on states already struggling with Y2K conversion and the loss of technical staff to the private sector.

The report, written by Burck Smith of Public Interest Breakthroughs, focused on these and other issues of infrastructure and the impact of federal mandates. It also identifies some of the best practices among state efforts and obstacles to using automation in support of welfare reform.


The NASIRE report acknowledges that states are engaged in a process of dramatically redefining the function of traditional human-services agencies. In fact, the inclusion of a variety of cash-assistance, child-welfare, workforce and health-services functions under a single "human services" policy umbrella is in itself a radically different view from the nearly universal perspective of eligibility determination and benefits distribution as welfare's core function.

Some states -- Utah, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Illinois, for example -- reported they have reorganized in response to welfare reform, combining formerly separate health, welfare and/or workforce development organizations under new human-services umbrella agencies. Other states indicated that, while they have not restructured agencies, they are redesigning business processes to cross traditional departmental boundaries. Every state reported that its reformed welfare environment has a cross-program human-services perspective.

NASIRE also reported that governors and legislatures have created an even more significant role for county and local governments, schools, nongovernmental third-party service providers and faith communities in the new human-services environment.

Despite significant changes in the approach to human services and the roles of key players, the states must contend with an infrastructure comprised of data and information "stovepipes" resulting from many years of federally mandated information systems. The report cites a General Services Administration report that states that, by 1993, over $8.6 billion was spent on building systems to meet pre-reform federal specifications.

In this new environment of cross-program and cross-organizational information systems, infrastructure becomes a primary change-process tool. Nearly 60 percent of the states responding to NASIRE's survey are creating data exchange protocols and developing "data warehouses" and/or "data marts." Minnesota, for example, reported that resolving the variety of data definitions implemented in the different legacy welfare systems requires an interagency work group to determine compatible data elements for inclusion in their newly designed data-warehouse prototype.

While 61 percent of states reported an existing statewide network linking information systems between its departments and agencies, only 37 percent of those responding to NASIRE reported networks that had linkages between all of those agencies necessary to implement welfare reform. Practically every state with a statewide wide area network indicated they were in the process of expanding those state networks and establishing more point-to-point connections to accommodate welfare reform. New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin all reported new initiatives to build statewide networks to support welfare reform.

Kentucky and Iowa were both highlighted in the report as having established best practices in using statewide networks to support welfare-reform implementation. New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri and many other states are looking to the Internet or are establishing intranets to enable counties and local agencies to access cross-jurisdictional information and work in a more collaborative manner.

The report indicates that access-control software and other security strategies can handle issues of unauthorized access. However, creating new network and data-sharing capabilities raises questions about controlling how those with access to cross-program data will use this new information. Information policy issues relating to privacy and other civil liberty concerns were in the forefront of NASIRE members' concerns.

John Kelly, Arizona's director of the Government Information Technology Agency, is one of the growing number of CIOs confronting this new cross-agency reality, aware that political as well as technical skill is now essential for effective IT leadership.


NASIRE asserts that although states were granted the authority to design their own human-services programs, they have been shackled with reporting requirements that threaten to limit the very innovation that PRWORA sought to inspire. Of the mandated reporting requirements that states found most difficult to fulfill include:

* Collecting data on families when a family is defined to include nonrecipients living in the same household

* Resolving the fact that "family" is defined differently by different programs and by different states

* Collecting data on individuals no longer served by state assistance programs

* Reporting on the types of subsidized housing received by a client

* Collecting information on how states are meeting requirements regarding "maintenance of effort" levels, even if they are spending state -- not federal -- monies to maintain that effort.

States reported to NASIRE that meeting the federally mandated reporting requirements, as they are currently designed, will impose a significant and unwieldy burden on them. Furthermore, state and local governments believe that the more than 110 data elements contained in the recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exceeds the authority granted to it by Congress in PRWORA. States report that the federal government promised to provide "states with software to capture and transfer program information from their own agencies to the U.S. Social Security Administration and then to the National Institutes of Health, which would analyze the information and prepare the reports for HHS." Most states found that the software did not work, so states are struggling to meet the quarterly reporting requirements on their own.

Reporting requirements asked for information not collected by current systems, according to state respondents. Iowa, like most states, reported that its existing information systems were built to automate processes that enable workers to be more efficient and only had data available for reporting as a by-product of those processes. New Jersey spoke for many states, saying the federal reporting requirements ask for data that is not necessary to support general operation of the TANF program or to report on the results of those program activities. New Jersey and other states charged that the reporting requirements focus on discovering what states do not do as opposed to what they are doing.

NASIRE and Public Interest Breakthroughs concluded that the combination of federal reporting and eligibility mandates are keeping states from retooling their information systems capabilities to support the objectives of welfare reform.

IT Embrace

Welfare Reform: Information Systems and the States reports that states are enthusiastically embracing IT as a critical tool as they engage in welfare-reform efforts designed to assist clients as they try to achieve economic self-sufficiency. However, the report also concludes that investments of large amounts of money and technology, which could have been used to build information systems and networks to support more-effective service delivery, will be used to meet federal mandates that will not impact service quality and client outcomes or measure the effectiveness of welfare reform.

NASIRE recognizes that government at every level is turning to outcome measures to assess policy and programs, but they assert that state IT and human-services policy leaders must collaborate with their federal and local counterparts to develop more reasonable data-collection standards than those developed by the federal government on its own.

The entire report is available at the NASIRE and Public Interest Breakthroughs Web sites.

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 of Vienna, Va.,

July Table of Contents

Nearly 60 percent of the states responding to NASIRE's survey are creating data exchange protocols and developing "data warehouses" and/or "data marts."

Larry Singer Contributing Writer