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.

Infrastructure

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.

Larry Singer  |  Contributing Writer