Child Support Enforcement:

Families Could Benefit From Stronger Enforcement Program

HEHS-95-24: Published: Dec 27, 1994. Publicly Released: Jan 25, 1995.

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Jane L. Ross
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the national child support enforcement (CSE) program, focusing on: (1) whether the federal government has essential management tools in place to fulfill the program's mission; (2) how well the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) has fulfilled its role in fostering the development of state CSE programs; (3) state efforts to overcome barriers hampering enforcement efforts; and (4) the implications of welfare reform proposals and the impact of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).

GAO found that: (1) the federal CSE program lacks a well-articulated mission, programwide planning and goal-setting, and accurate program performance data to guide program management; (2) as a GPRA pilot agency, OCSE has initiated management improvements to better serve the states and families by including stakeholders, establishing long-term goals, and focusing on program results; (3) OCSE has almost eliminated the technical support and training it provides to state programs because of declining resources; (4) various organizational and staff changes have created problems in communications between federal and state CSE officials; (5) OCSE audit and data collection efforts are insufficient to provide needed information on program results; (6) some states have set up their own audit procedures and monitoring systems; (7) common barriers hampering state enforcement efforts include increasing workloads, inadequate resources and computer systems, lack of control over local units, state legislatures' failure to support state program initiatives, inadequate client information, and nonstandardized procedures; (8) to overcome program impediments, some states have augmented their staffs with volunteers, introduced administrative procedures in place of judicial procedures, contracted with private collection agencies, improved automation, and used innovative enforcement techniques; and (9) many welfare reform proposals would expand child support enforcement missions and restructure program funding, but OCSE may have trouble implementing changes unless it strengthens its leadership and program management.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OCSE initiated actions to address state performance goals, data quality, incentive funding, and federal-state working relationships. Specifically, it has begun to negotiate performance goals with individual states and has undertaken efforts to improve the quality of program data through its Measuring Excellence Through Statistics initiative. Also, as required by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, HHS submitted in February 1997 a new incentive funding structure for congressional consideration. Finally, OCSE has improved its working relationships with the states by, among other things, designating regional program managers to assist states in improving their child support enforcement programs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct OCSE to address in its future planning efforts, in conjunction with major program stakeholders such as Congress, state program managers, regional CSE specialists, and appropriate advocacy groups: (1) individualized state performance goals based on such factors as past state performance, demographics, and degree of automation; (2) data quality improvement; (3) funding-structure changes that will retain the current performance-based approach but make it supportive of mission priorities; and (4) methods for improving federal-state communication and working relationships.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OCSE recognizes the need to establish its own strategies for how it will help achieve newly established program goals. Beginning in 1995, key managers developed their own annual performance agreements in consultation with selected states. While such agreements have been developed for its top managers, OCSE still needs to develop its own long-term management strategies for helping to achieve program goals, prioritize its responsibilities, specify intended results from its operations, and identify resources for assessing its own performance. GAO recommended that OCSE implement these critical next steps in HEHS/GGD-97-14.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct OCSE to establish performance goals that are linked to the fulfillment of the OCSE mission. In this process, OCSE should consider setting outcome goals, in addition to output goals, in the areas of timely regulatory development, clear policy direction and responsiveness to state programs, cooperative planning, and technical assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ACF regional offices have been restructured in response to GAO's recommendation and a subsequent study by the National Performance Review. OCSE has designated regional program managers and specialists to work with state child support enforcement programs in their respective regions. As a result, field staff have become more responsive to state requests for technical assistance.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should establish an organizational structure and reporting mechanisms for OCSE that support program priorities, set OCSE performance goals, and provide greater federal CSE program accountability among the regional staff and activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: New statutory provisions contained in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 require OCSE to change its audit approach and propose revisions to the child support enforcement program's incentive funding structure. In accordance with these statutory provisions, OCSE is to review state compliance reports and provide the states with comments, recommendations for corrective actions, and technical assistance, when appropriate. In addition, the legislation also required HHS and the states to develop a new, revenue-neutral incentive funding structure and report to the Congress on the revised structure by March 1, 1997; the legislation does not specify how the structure should be revised. As indicated above, HHS submitted the proposed revisions to the Congress in February 1997.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should continue to pursue the statutory initiatives to reform the OCSE audit approach and to change the program funding structure within the context of welfare reform, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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