Donna Bonar - HHS: The system pays

Donna Bonar - HHS: The system pays<@VM>Online Extra Q&A: Donna Bonar

Career highlights

1980: Joins the Office of Child Support Enforcement in HHS.

1982: Implements system for intercepting tax refunds from child support debtors.

1996-98: As director of OCSE's Division of Program Operations, directed the addition of the National Directory of New Hires and the Federal Case Registry of Child Support Orders to the Federal Parent Locator Service.

2000: Named Associate Commissioner of Automation and Program Operations.

'Being able to improve child support enforcement has been a big focus of my work.' -- Donna Bonar

J. Adam Fenster

Bonar's efforts in automation hit home for millions of kids

Donna Bonar remembers being closer to the front lines of child support enforcement, working in the paternity division of the Marion County Prosecutor's Office in Indianapolis in the late 1970s.

'Back then, there was no automation at all,' she said. If a debtor wasn't paying, for instance, somebody had to go out and find him. And getting help from the federal level was, at best, a long shot.

There was a nascent federal program, created in 1975. It involved workers filling out forms that made five copies, then mailing off some of the copies. 'We never got anything back,' she said. 'We considered it a black hole.'

'At the federal level,' said Bonar, now the associate commissioner of automation and program operations in the Office of Child Support Enforcement, 'being able to improve that process has been a big focus of my work for the last 10 years.'

Actually, Bonar started with OSCE, part of the Health and Human Services Department, in 1980, after moving to Washington. She's held her current job since 2000, but all along her track record, along with that of the office, has been one of increasing dividends for child support recipients.

Among her early efforts, in 1982, was the implementation of a system for intercepting tax refunds from child support debtors. Since then, OCSE has intercepted more than $15 billion in refunds.

Numbers offer a clue to the changes that have come about at OCSE. In Bonar's first year, for example, the office handled about 150,000 cases, all of them on paper. Now, it handles about 6 million cases a year, collecting some $1.4 billion annually, she said.

Behind the numbers is the sense of mission Bonar and her staff bring to their work.

'She has dedicated her life to helping America's children and families,' said Sherri Z. Heller, OCSE commissioner.

Early on, Bonar got used to the ideas of cross-agency projects and interoperable systems, because the office work often involves the IRS, Education and State departments, Social Security Administration and offices in 54 states and territories. 'One thing about the child support program is that every level of government is involved,' she said.

The biggest changes in child support enforcement have come through automation, she said, and the push toward automation accelerated with the passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996. Along with strengthening child support enforcement, the legislation gave OCSE a tall order to expand its Federal Parent Locator Service to include two huge databases. Bonar led the effort to include the National Directory of New Hires, which covers all employees in the country, and the Federal Case Registry of Child Support Orders, which covers 18 million support cases.

Congress had given HHS a year to add each database; NDNH came online in 1997, the case registry a year later.

To get there, Bonar set up an arrangement with SSA, whose reputation with employers was established and already had a secure computer system in place. SSA and HHS were once part of the same department, and SSA still hosted their computer systems.

Nevertheless, the idea took some selling. Heller pointed out that 'going outside the HHS structure was unheard-of at the time, totally outside normal management expectations.'

After Bonar testified before Congress in 1998 about the program, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) of the House Ways and Means Committee, offered high praise: 'Having watched many pristine legislative proposals founder upon implementation, I must say that your work in implementing the new hire program makes us all look pretty smart.'

In her approach to management, she relies on the esprit de corps within her office. 'I just have a lot of really capable people, skilled people, working on this project ... who have a lot of ideas,' she said.

The goal, of course, is finding ways to recover support payments for children who need the support.

'Actually, the last 10 years, the functions are still the same,' she said, 'but you're doing it through technology,' which has expanded the program's reach, speeded processes and increased returns to their ultimate constituents, kids. 'It's a great program.'Q: What advice would you give someone looking to move up to the manager level?

Being a federal manager doesn't necessarily mean you will be managing federal employees. With outsourcing, a new mindset and skill set are needed to effectively manage in this new federal/contractor team environment.

Q: What's the best advice you received, and from whom?

Surround yourself with a talented and diverse team of individuals that are not afraid to speak their minds. A team of talented and diverse individuals told me that!

Q: Why government service?

Where else can you have the opportunity to dramatically impact the lives of our nation's children? I'm a believer in effective government, and being a problem solver allows me to be a part of the solution.

Q: How important is mentoring in developing a good manager?

It's easier to learn by example and experience. Being willing to listen to and learn from a manager-mentor not only impacts the time it takes to climb the management ladder, but allows practical experience to learn real-life problem solving skills. By mentoring at the management level, we've been able to preserve and propagate the program's institutional knowledge and culture.

Q: What part does fun play in your work?

There's truth to that saying about all work and no play! Fun is a no-cost employee benefit that boosts morale. It's important to celebrate your successes together.

Q: How do you balance work and home life?

I balance with a lot of support. At work I have a group of dedicated people who are willing to pitch in where needed, and at home I have a husband who's very supportive and participates fully in raising our kids.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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