Welfare Reform:

Improving State Automated Systems Requires Coordinated Federal Effort

HEHS-00-48: Published: Apr 27, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 27, 2000.

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GAO reviewed states' efforts to meet the information needs associated with welfare reform, with a focus on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), focusing on the: (1) extent to which automated systems in selected states meet key information needs of programs that help low-income individuals with children obtain employment and become economically independent; (2) approaches states are using to develop or modify their automated systems to better meet these information needs; and (3) major obstacles states have encountered in working to improve their automated systems as well as the potential role of the federal government in helping overcome these obstacles.

GAO noted that: (1) although automated systems in the states GAO examined support welfare reform in many ways, a number of these systems have major limitations in one or more of three key areas; (2) with respect to information needs for case management, the major shortcoming is an inability to obtain data on individual TANF recipients from some of the agencies serving them, including job assistance agencies; (3) this situation makes it difficult for TANF case managers to arrange needed services, ensure that the services are provided, and respond quickly when problems arise; (4) officials in the states, especially those at the local level, said that it is sometimes difficult or impossible to query automated systems to obtain information for planning service strategies for their overall TANF caseloads, such as information on the number of adults with no prior work experience; (5) automated systems have shortcomings for program oversight purposes, specifically, they do not provide enough information to support enforcement of the 5-year TANF time limit and to monitor the employment progress of TANF recipients overall in some instances; (6) states' automated systems projects embody a range of approaches to expanding the ability of system users to obtain and analyze data from multiple sources; (7) some projects are designed primarily to support TANF case managers and other frontline workers in providing more coordinated delivery of services; (8) other projects, geared more to improving the ability of program managers to collect and analyze data from different programs, involve developing new query tools and databases that are expected to help program managers with key tasks, such as determining program results and assessing the performance of service providers; (9) states face a number of obstacles to improving their automated systems, such as the magnitude of changes in the mission and operations of welfare agencies due to welfare reform, the inherent difficulties associated with successfully managing information technology projects, competition with the private sector to recruit and retain information technology staff, and the complexity of obtaining federal funding for systems projects that involve multiple agencies; (10) the federal government could take various actions to help overcome such obstacles, such as providing more information on best practices for managing information technology; and (11) in this way, the federal government could serve a facilitative role, in addition to its regulatory role, in helping states improve automated systems for social programs.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended by GAO, HHS formed an interagency group to identify actions to help promote excellence in state systems development, and improve the effectiveness of automated systems for human services. The group has been meeting regularly since May 2000, and includes representatives from HHS' Administration for Children and Families and its Health Care Financing Administration, Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, and the Department of Labor. The group's initial efforts focused on reviewing and modifying the federal process for systems procurement, and disseminating information on best practices for managing information technology. In its September 2000 response letter to OMB and Congress, HHS said that it expects that initial work group accomplishments will be available within the next 6 to 12 months. In 2001, the work group developed several options for improving the federal process for systems procurement, but had not recommended which, if any, of these should be implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should establish an interagency group to identify, and develop implementation for, federal actions that would facilitate states' efforts to improve their automated systems for federal programs that serve low-income families. The group should include high-level federal officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, and other federal agencies as appropriate. The interagency group should obtain input from state and local social program and information technology managers. The group could also seek input from others, such as state organizations, professional organizations of social program officials, and welfare researchers. In addition to any actions that the interagency group identifies on its own, the group should consider actions in the following areas: (1) disseminating information on best practices for managing information technology generally and best practices specific to automated systems that support welfare reform; (2) reviewing, and modifying as needed, the federal process for systems procurement to ensure that it meets federal needs for state accountability without unnecessarily hindering state development efforts; (3) facilitating links among the automated systems used by different state and local agencies through such means as supporting demonstrations designed to promote better partnerships between state and local agencies and coordinating data reporting requirements for different federal programs; and (4) addressing the need for states to have access to cross-state information on individuals' TANF receipt to enforce the 5-year TANF time limit.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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