Florida tries to smooth welfare-to-work

Florida tries to smooth welfare-to-work

Mario D. Garcia works at the Miami-Dade/Monroe Wages Coalition, which must tailor the state's WAGES program for the two counties.

Goal is Web interface between state and private coalition systems

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

When Florida decided to let private organizations oversee its welfare-to-work program, data sharing between state-run and private-sector computers complicated the program's implementation. Now the state is working to develop an integrated statewide system to alleviate the problems.

The Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency Program (WAGES) provides job preparation, case management, training and support services to welfare recipients whose benefits will eventually be terminated under new welfare laws.

WAGES is run on the local level by 24 private-sector coalitions that tailor the program to meet specific communities' needs.

State officials want to develop a statewide Web-based system that would provide a clean interface with the monolithic Florida system and the private coalitions' various systems, said Ronald Aronica, an information systems strategic planner for the state WAGES board.

The board, which comprises state agency directors and private-sector business leaders, oversees the coalitions.

The state is considering proposals from Andersen Consulting of Chicago and IBM Corp., Aronica said.

The state WAGES board wants a three-tier system that would include a presentation server, a business rules server and a database, Aronica said.

The state will require a well-defined interface between the business rules and presentation layers. That way the coalitions will be assured of data quality no matter which software they use in their systems, Aronica said.

Coalition officials favor the proposal.

'If we could have direct access to Florida's database, we could improve performance by 100 percent,' said Diego T. Vivar, director of management information systems for the Miami-Dade/Monroe Wages Coalition.

Tracking clients through three separate systems has been a huge problem, said Edith Humes-Newbold, an adviser to Miami Mayor Alex Penelas on the welfare-to-work program.

Two-way street

Client data flows in both directions between Florida's mainframes, which handle a myriad of state programs, the state's WAGES system and the local coalitions' systems. In Miami-Dade, there is a fourth layer of systems run by a vendor'first Lockheed Martin Corp., now Miami-Dade Community College. The college provides many services, officials said.

Information about Florida welfare recipients enters the system through the state's mainframes, where eligibility data for the WAGES program is maintained. Eligible recipients' names are entered into the state's system, which sends an alert to the coalition responsible for providing services to each client, officials said.

The alerts'the basis for data transfer'are so cumbersome that Vivar's coalition has switched to manually acknowledging them daily and then downloading the data weekly. This has caused a time delay, he said.

The problem of tracking welfare cases between systems is particularly acute for Miami-Dade, which is home to 43 percent of Florida's welfare cases, officials said.

'We started with 46,000 clients, placed 22,000, per state records, and have 18,000 remaining,' Humes-Newbold said. 'The next closest county has about 3,000.'

When a client gets a job or is nearing the end of the time limit and has little prospect of landing a job, the coalition alerts the WAGES system. Case data must flow back and forth between the local coalitions and the WAGES system. Yet the coalitions, because they are private organizations, have read-only access to the system, not input access, Humes-Newbold said.

Pulling teeth

The Miami-Dade/Monroe Wages Coalition developed its e.WAGES system to interact with Florida's WAGES system. But without the ability to input directly into the state database, the coalition had to resort to screen scraping, a tedious and problematic process, Vivar said.

'If a field is added, it moves everything over and blows the screen,' he said.

Vivar said he 'negotiated, cajoled and even pounded on desks' for input access.

Two years ago, the state hired Andersen Consulting to look at alternatives. Andersen recommended replacing the WAGES system with a Web-based system.

But the state decided to see which systems four or five of the coalitions were implementing, Aronica said. State officials thought some of these systems could meet statewide needs, he said.

The state quickly found that only one of the coalitions had a system that could support day-to-day operations, and that most had client-server rather than Web systems.

'They were just not scalable to a statewide solution,' Aronica said.

That was bad news for the small and midsize coalitions, which had few resources to develop their own systems and were counting on a new statewide system.

'Miami-Dade, with the greatest caseload, had its e.WAGES system,' Vivar said. Still, it left Vivar and his assistant, Mario D. Garcia, scrambling to plug the gap.

The e.WAGES system, developed by Virtual Engineering Solutions Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., is a browser-based case tracking and electronic billing database application that uses Microsoft Internet Information Server running under Microsoft Windows NT 4.0. The application's Active Server Pages were developed using Microsoft Visual InterDev and Luxent e-biz Factory from Luxent Development Corp. of San Clemente, Calif. Reporting functions are provided by Seagate Crystal Reports from Seagate Technology Inc. of Scotts Valley, Calif.

A dual-processor 333-MHz Dell Pentium II PowerEdge 4200, with 1G of RAM and 16G of RAID Level 5 storage, is configured as the primary domain controller with Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and Windows Internet Naming Service. It runs Microsoft Exchange Server for e-mail. The server also runs Cheyenne ArcServe for Windows NT from Computer Associates International Inc.

A quad-processor 200-MHz Pentium Pro IBM Netfinity 7000, with 4G of RAM and 24G of hot-swappable RAID Level 5 storage, is configured as the secondary domain controller, file and print, and application server.

Doubling up

A quad-processor 400-MHz Xeon IBM Netfinity 7000, with 4G of RAM and 54G of hot-swappable RAID Level 5 storage, runs Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 and Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0. It doubles as a Web and database application server.

Two additional quad-processor 500-MHz Xeon IBM Netfinity 7000-M10s, each with 4G of RAM and 90G hot-swappable RAID Level 5 storage, run Citrix software from Citrix Systems Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

This technology supports thin clients, establishes secure network connections between remote-site end users and the main office, and centralizes workstation management.

But the e.WAGES system could not solve some problems that involved the larger state systems.

The coalition's fiscal department increased its performance 300 percent with e.WAGES in place, Vivar said. But client tracking was much more complex to develop because of the state's concerns about nonstate employees having direct access to its database, he said.

The coalition got so mired in the client tracking issue that work on a third job development component could not start. This component would let the coalition post job openings and track the status of referrals over the Web, Vivar said.

The coalition has since stopped using its Web-based client tracking system with screen scraping to transfer information back and forth between e.WAGES and the state WAGES system.

'We are just doing straight data entry,' Vivar said.

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