Integrators Face Greater Scrutiny as They Deploy Welfare Solutions

It's perhaps little surprise that one of the greatest opportunities to develop for the integration industry in recent memory may have a steep price attached.

The doors expected to be opened to integrators following the signing of the government's new welfare reform bill will likely be some of the most closely monitored doors of entry inside the state and local market. The intersection of industry and government has long tested the skills of disciplined management, and this is especially true inside the public assistance sector.

The task facing integrators is daunting; integrate hundreds of departmental computer systems that in the past had been designed to operate independently and with minimal thought behind interdepartmental communications. In order to get the ball rolling, the federal government will direct $400 million to fund the integration effort. Those funds will then be matched by state and local governments. Estimates gauge the market at about $1 billion, but the associated outsourcing opportunities are expected to be many times greater.

Wasting little time, several integrators have already begun tailoring their services strategies to target the emerging opportunities

For instance, Unisys Corp. recently announced an alliance with JobQuest Corp., Spokane, Wash. As part of the alliance, the integrator will deploy a registration solution that screens applicants for welfare program eligibility and establishes employment readiness.

Interstate solutions pose an even greater challenge for the integration industry. An interstate human services communication infrastructure is already underway for such things as tracking child support and deadbeat dads. But when you throw in the combination of block grants with national limits on benefits disbursements, facile communications between human services departments become critical.

Not everyone is expected to welcome the integrators. If industry profits are linked to reducing welfare rolls, the incentive to deny aid will be overwhelming, certain public assistance advocates have warned. Clearly, the public sector watchdogs are already on alert, and if the integrators are to make any headway in deploying the advantages of integrated technologies inside this highly scrutinized sector, they must proceed with caution.

"Whatever shape new welfare programs take, the one common thread they share is that they will have to know how long someone has been on public assistance, " said Richard Ferreira, manager of human services with EDS' office of government affairs. There are concerns that without this interstate connectivity, people might surf from state to state collecting welfare.

"Beyond that, states must know to what degree they will be held responsible for ensuring that individuals do not receive more than five years of benefits -- particularly if those individuals have received benefits in another state," he said.

Federal integrators are not the only ones keeping a close eye on welfare reform -- both for the opportunities that it represents in its own right, as well as for its potential to supply profits, the watchdogs are on alert.

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