Montgomery County, Ohio's Office of Family and Children First enables courts, law enforcement agencies and social service providers to collaborate securely.

by / December 3, 2004
To help needy individuals and families become self-sufficient more quickly, the Montgomery County, Ohio, Office of Family and Children First (OFCF) is streamlining the back-end processes that make help available.

Established in 1993 by a state law, the OFCF is a partnership of government agencies and community organizations that aims to improve quality of life for children and their families by bringing together hospitals, schools and counselors, utilities and others. There are OFCF offices in each Ohio county.

AgencyLink, a collaborative services Web portal being deployed by the Montgomery County OFCF, will allow providers and agencies, such as law enforcement and hospitals, to quickly and efficiently exchange information and expedite case handling.

The Montgomery County OFCF expects the Web-based applications to help agencies reduce duplication, foster collaboration and store data to improve service delivery, according to OFCF Program Manager Ed McNachtan. The applications will also provide a method to capture data that agency directors and policy-makers can later use to allocate resources.

The system's goal is to help public-sector agencies share information to improve overall data accuracy and completeness, which will bring better services to people in the community.

"The bottom line is that e-government is about improving services delivered by the government to enhance the lives of people while saving money for the community," McNachtan said. "This is a very entrepreneurial approach to e-government and takes the view of reinventing government so it is more efficient with less duplicate work."

The AgencyLink Network will provide users with a single entry point into what the OFCF calls its "community network" -- where citizens can access the agency's online services.

These services will include information sharing via newsgroups, discussion groups and bulletin boards; a document library for sharing forms and literature across the network, and distributing event dates across the community via public, agency and private calendars; and content pages including guidelines for community volunteers, a glossary of social service terminology, frequently asked questions, links to relevant Internet social-service-oriented sites and keyword search ability within the network.

The AgencyLink Network has many components providing solutions to specific community needs, McNachtan said, noting that the infrastructure can also be used for future community e-government initiatives.

Well Oiled Machine
In 1993, the OFCF began looking for a computerized case management system that could help the office better deliver human services. The office hired a consulting firm to conduct focus groups and design a system, but that initiative didn't pan out.

"The technology was limited and the costs too high to bring a system into reality, and the initiative was dropped after a year," McNachtan said.

Then in 1999, the county renewed the project. After discovering there were no existing applications in the marketplace, the OFCF created the AgencyLink Network using custom Web-based applications.

"We decided to create each of our solutions as a custom-based application, based on Microsoft's VB platform using the ASP [Active Server Pages] model," he said, adding that the OFCF updated each platform module -- or component of the overall AgencyLink Network -- to Microsoft ASP.NET during the course of the project.

The goal of ASP.NET is to make building Web applications easier, and its server controls enable HTML-like programming with less code than with standard ASP, in addition to other enhancements. While planning the system, the OFCF soon discovered that security must be built into the system.

"When we were obtaining requirements for the vision, it became apparent that much of the information captured by the proposed applications would hold very sensitive data," McNachtan said. "With that in mind, the application and infrastructure have been built to meet HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] standards, and we viewed the protection of the information from unauthorized access as one of our main goals. We feel we have made reasonable efforts to protect the data."

To secure the AgencyLink Network, used many technologies, such as F5's BIG-IP platform for encryption, and Watchfire Inc.'s AppShield as the application firewall, McNachtan said.

"We also encrypt select files on the database for further protection," he added. "We outsourced our firewall and IDS to VeriSign because we felt they could monitor and react better to security threats than our internal staff could."

Projected Benefits
The AgencyLink Network costs $5.3 million to implement, which includes infrastructure and four custom applications over a six-year period, McNachtan said. The network will cost $831,000 per year to maintain and operate, but if the community adds more modules to the infrastructure, those numbers will change.

Though a formal return on investment (ROI) assessment has not been completed, the OFCF did a scenario based on resource-mapping numbers the department already tracks yearly.

"We feel we can give a glimpse of the impact an e-government network can make on a community by doing a 'what-if' scenario," McNachtan said, adding that the total allocation for human services, education and criminal justice in Montgomery County for 2003 was more than $1.2 billion. "This amount would be considered a conservative estimate because some of the municipalities or school districts choose not to send their updated information to our office."

Based on the OFCF's best number, the agency will see an ROI of $11,564,024 per year if the AgencyLink Network can improve collaboration and reduce duplication by .01 percent. This would mean the ROI is achieved after one year, he said.

If the AgencyLink Network improves processes at .005 percent, the annual savings would be $5,366,512.

"In this scenario, it would take approximately two years to obtain an ROI on the project for our taxpayers to start seeing improved human service delivery at a smaller cost to the community," McNachtan said.

The OFCF's AgencyLink Network portal will be unveiled Jan. 1, 2005, but McNachtan said one lesson learned is there will be many turf, political and process issues to work out before the project "hits critical mass and reaches a tipping point with community agencies."

System users will require a history of stable applications, and will need to work through their fears of technology before the system can meet its full potential, he said, estimating the OFCF's "tipping point" will be around the first or second quarter of 2007.

"We felt we had to have a working system before we made a lot of promises to the community," he said. "I would speculate it will take a good two years of sales, marketing and stable operations to help change the culture to embrace a collaborative platform when people are currently used to working in silos."
Jessica Jones Managing Editor