Work together

Everywhere you look, the demands on federal systems--and their programmers--are getting
more complex, even as the means to meet these demands shrink.

The demands often go way beyond information systems work.

Take, for example, IRS' ugly and widely publicized problems. Stripping away the
politics driving the current round of IRS-bashing, you find an agency twisting and turning
to carry out marching orders from the very Congress now using the agency's failings to
political advantage.

Meanwhile, Congress is setting up the Health and Human Services Department for another
possible fall via the systems demands of the welfare reform law. This complicated law has
equally complicated reporting requirements that, if translated literally into systems
projects, could lead to the grandest of the grand designs.

What Congress expects is easy to state: Track individual citizens and their employment
records so that they don't get welfare for more than 60 months, no matter where they

But if you think about that for five minutes, you begin to grasp the difficulties.

HHS has 50 partners in this massive information technology initiative requirement: the
states, which will administer the federal welfare money. But the partnership raises a
further problem. The systems the states and HHS build must be interoperable.

There's no shortcut to meeting the systems demands of welfare reform, and unlimited
funds would not necessarily solve the problems. States have a long way to go, as an HHS
report due this month will show.

But there's a glimmer of hope in some work going on in California's Health and Welfare
Agency Data Center. The state, which has 6 million welfare recipients and a system for
each of 57 counties, is a veritable welfare nation unto itself.

California is consolidating welfare programs into four groups of counties, each with a
single tracking system. The welfare agency's data mavens have counted 3,000 data elements
in a typical case file. Of these, they've identified 200 data elements necessary to
conduct some 140 intersystem transactions for tracking recipients.

Such transactions are likely to be mirrored in data exchanged among the states and
monitored in Washington.

California hasn't licked welfare reporting, but it's done a lot of hard work that other
states needn't duplicate. In this case, a federal agency should let a state take the lead.

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