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Data Standards Gain Ground in HHS Programs

Congress advances cause of interoperability to help curb fraud and abuse.

by / April 19, 2012

In Massachusetts, Craig Burlingame oversees a centralized IT infrastructure as CIO of the state's trial courts. This setup streamlines communications between the courts and the numerous agencies the courts interact with on any given day. But many other states work within bureaucracies that are more distributed, making communication among government entities with overlapping jurisdictions a challenging proposition.

“We see business coming into the courts from many different governmental domains, so something could come to us from public safety, child welfare and homeland security — all in the same day,” Burlingame explained in a recent interview with Government Technology.

“If we use different frameworks and different data dictionaries for different sectors of government, now we have 15 different ways we have to try to do business.”

And getting different systems to speak to one another can be expensive. Communication requires constructing gateway interfaces to enable collaboration and information sharing – a step that proponents of data standards call unnecessary.

Banking Illustrates Need for Change

Burlingame points to the banking industry’s uniform method of conducting electronic funds transfers (EFT) to explain the goals of data standards advocates.  Standards developed by the American Banking Association ensure that the banking industry and the vendor community that builds the technology infrastructure supporting the banking industry each know the standards for processing an EFT. “It wouldn’t make any sense for there to be 7,000 different ways to move money from one bank account to a different bank account in another institution,” he said.

Champions of data standardization are confident that this kind of cooperation among government agencies dealing in health and human services will help simplify the way information is exchanged and analyzed.

Signifying an important development in intergovernmental cooperation, new data standards making their way through Congress will be based on the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). Now in use in 14 different domains, such as immigration, emergency management and intelligence, NIEM establishes a technology framework and data dictionary of commonly used data elements to facilitate intergovernmental information sharing.

Tackling Waste Through Better Data Sharing

Congress is considering legislation to expand the use of data standards into the child support enforcement area. Part of a broader push to strengthen the interoperability of IT systems in public benefit areas, a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee has previously pushed similar changes in other health and human services programs.

A welcome byproduct of standardization efforts — and another major impetus for reform — is to reduce payments doled out in error by many federal benefits programs.

Some argue that people who seek to defraud these government programs are exploiting this lack of interoperability between information systems. “I think some of the fraud that happens in this country is based on the presumption that systems don't talk to one another. The more we can do to make systems efficiently talk to one another, the greater the likelihood might be that we can build fraud detection into our automation,” Burlingame said.

An opening statement for the Ways and Means Subcommittee hearing on Thursday, April 19, explains that an early goal of the data standardization effort was to curb the high cost of these improper payments, which peaked at $125 billion in 2010. The statement reveals that the effort has since broadened in scope. “It really became about making government work smarter, faster and more efficiently for both beneficiaries and taxpayers.”

Ongoing Efforts Expand to Other Sectors

Bipartisan support for these changes is evidenced by the inclusion of data standards language in child welfare program legislation, signed by President Obama in September 2011, as well as the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Data standards have also been applied to unemployment insurance and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Current legislation now being considered would apply the same data standardization language to the child support enforcement program. A more broadly worded bill, the Standard DATA Act, would attach data standards to even more programs.

Committee members intend to broaden their effort even further to help modernize programs elsewhere in the executive branch, including the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security.

Upon announcing the April 19 hearing, U.S. Congressman Geoff Davis, R-Kentucky, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, said, “The progress made in the last year is only the first step in a much longer process of bringing human service programs into the 21st century. The standardization activities reviewed in this hearing will promote transparency, flexibility and accountability by ensuring data can be shared across the various information technology platforms used by federal and state agencies. Improving the use of this program data will benefit program recipients and taxpayers alike by ensuring efficient and effective stewardship of scarce taxpayer funds.”

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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