Federal Government should flow down sense instead of dollars

A recent Washington Post article pointed out a serious problem in flow-downs and block
grant programs between federal and state and local governments.

The federal government is flowing down billions to the states for various social
purposes (in this case, child support programs). The states' performance in implementing
those programs has ranged from good to poor. Some of the needed computer systems have been
completed; some have not. Time lines, scope and quality of systems are different.

The problem? No commonality of approach despite commonality of requirements, and no
consistency. Have we heard this before?

The money goes out, designated for a use, and the guidance and mandates on how the
money is spent are inadequate. So one state has a basic, functioning, get-the-job-done
system, and another has a monster that's not finished. Who's at fault? The states, the
contractors, the federal agencies or Congress for not putting strings on the
flow-down/grant guidelines?

Instead of dissecting the problem, let's look at an alternative approach that should
save time and money.

Congress appropriates a big chunk of money for a social program to be operated by
states or localities. The appropriations bill requires that the administering federal
agency rapidly develop an application common to the basic needs of the program in all
states and territories.

The software must meet certain development and maintenance criteria; the source code
and design documentation and user training materials must go to the states. The federal
agency must certify the software meets the intended purpose. Since the government probably
will contract out development of the basic app, the contractor has to stand behind that
certification, too.

The software that is developed has specific attributes of scope, design, manageability,
scalability, user interfaces, outputs/reports and expendability, as well as integration of
other modules to accommodate special needs. Interfaces with other appropriate systems,
from national health care to financial reporting, are included. All reports have common
elements or formats, for paper and electronic commerce, for example.

The contractor also has the obligation to work with state and local staff and the
contractors retained by state and local agencies, in supporting system integration and
enhancement. The app can be scalable, so a state with small needs could put it on one
Pentium system, and California, for example, could put it on a WAN with several servers.

This approach can work, if anyone in a power seat wants it to. Welfare, child support,
child abuse, certain elements of elderly and health care programs [el1] there is a long
list of national concerns and national programs where the feds should lead the charge on
integrating requirements and developing solutions, as opposed to tax and flow-down.

If tax and flow-down are all the federal government wants to do, it ought to change the
way laws are made and what the laws say. It should tax less, leaving the local program
implementations to the states, where there is more accountability. Now that, Mr. President
and Congress, is a way to cut federal size and the budget--and the deficit.

If you think about it for a minute, this approach reflects a broader and very much
needed change in attitude. In days long past, when automation was expensive and the
federal government was one of the few that could afford it, federally proscribed and run
programs made sense, more or less. Today, information technology is ubiquitous, software
is powerful and networks are phenomenal and growing.

So why not change the paradigm to support the reality? Why not commonize and
standardize for the common good? Why not implement solutions that have general

As an alternative, have the federal government ""buy'' the best-in-class
applications and program implementations from the states that implemented these
applications. The federal government then could distribute them to other states with a
royalty to the originating state. That's a good, common-sense business practice that could
flow into government.

Fifty states, 3,000-plus counties, 16,000-plus municipalities. All doing the same
things and spending the public dollar. My IRM friends at Agriculture, Housing and Urban
Development, Health and Human Services, and Energy, for example, all think this way. They
can't get management to listen. Their managers listen to Congress and the administration,
and those two entities simply don't think this way.

Don't give up. Don't stop thinking. A national election year lies ahead, and maybe
these kinds of good-government opportunities will become an election platform plank. Or at
least, a nail in the good-government plank.

Howard Nevin is a Burke, Va., consultant with more than 25 years of systems
integration experience in the commercial and government arenas.

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