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Feds Suggest Indiana FSSA Halt Welfare Automation Pilot

Benefits delays derail effort to modernize and outsource eligibility process.

Indiana's automated welfare eligibility pilot may halt operations after rolling out services in 59 of the state's 92 counties. A group of vendors led by IBM ran the project under a $1.16 billion, 10-year contract. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) delay any further rollout of the system on the grounds that it kept welfare recipients waiting too long for benefits.

"Indiana's most recent monthly reports indicate a decline in the timeliness of application processing that has occurred in the pilot region since the transition to the modernized service delivery model. Indiana's statewide application processing rate also continues to be a concern," said a letter from FNS Regional Administrator Ollice Holden to FSSA Secretary Mitch Roob.

No Indiana FSSA representatives were immediately available to comment on this story.

Indiana's initiative is the latest welfare system outsourcing project to run into serious problems. Texas cancelled a similar contract last year with Accenture which would have privatized the state's welfare eligibility process.

The Indiana project, which kicked off in October, aimed to accelerate eligibility by eliminating individually assigned caseworkers and empowering anyone answering the phone to help customers, said Zach Main, director of the FSSA's Division of Family Resources in an April interview with Government Technology.

At the time, Main criticized Texas' use of inexperienced call-center workers.

"Texas modernized and thought they could replace seasoned caseworkers with $8-per-hour people off the street," Main said. "We had an incredibly educated work force -- a lot of them with master's degrees and bachelor's degrees. The average tenure was more than 10 years, especially as you got into more rural areas. ... We said, 'These people are too valuable to let them go off to other places.'"

The FSSA turned 1,500 of its 2,200-person work force into IBM employees. The agency required IBM to offer all 1,500 employees jobs for a minimum of two years at the same pay and benefits they received from the state.

In his April interview, Main said citizens were satisfied with call-center operations, even though callers were waiting longer than planned to speak to eligibility workers. The FSSA planned for phone hold times of only 90 seconds. Instead, callers waited an average of five minutes, Main said.

He added that many callers were understanding when call-center operators apologized for those delays. "[Clients] say, 'Are you kidding me? Five minutes on the phone? I waited 10 minutes at the bus stop just to catch the first of two buses I needed to take to the county welfare office. This is incredibly convenient for us.'"


Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.
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