The Family Assistance Case Tracking System could be built in two to three years for less than $20 million but Congress must provide the necessary funding, Ragan told attendees at a National Association of State Information Resource Executives conference in Williamsburg, Va.
"We think the proposal to set up a steering committee is exactly the right way to go," said Jay Kayne, policy studies director for the National Governors' Association. "The states are the stakeholders in a devolved system of welfare reform and therefore should be taking the lead on the national system that would put it in place."
The committee recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the report mandated by Congress would likely be made up of representatives from state and federal government. The report, which is now being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, is already more than seven months late. Ragan told conference attendees Sept. 30 the report would probably be issued in four to six weeks.
States are holding off making any welfare information system purchases until they get specifics from the federal government about how to comply with sweeping welfare reform legislation approved last year, according to officials attending the NASIRE conference, which was held Sept. 29 through Oct. 1.
The legislation limits welfare recipients to 60 months of benefits and excludes people with certain criminal histories. The states will administer the program and be responsible for sharing information with other states to prevent welfare fraud.
Thomas Davies, vice president of the State & Local Services Group for Federal Sources Inc. of McLean, Va., said investments in new information technology systems by the states will be in a holding pattern for a few years, until welfare system design requirements are figured out.
"We are still very early in the process of understanding what the information needs and information requirements are," said Larry Singer, president of Public Interest Breakthroughs Inc. of Vienna, Va. "There are assumptions that there is data that exists that can be shared, which really doesn't exist."
The challenges in creating a coordinated state welfare system will be considerable, according to NASIRE conference attendees. For starters, government officials still must decide what data must be collected and shared between states and with the federal government, and how to accomplish that.
The new system will need to coordinate welfare databases with those of law enforcement and tax and revenue agencies. "There is no centralized database that can tie welfare and human services recipients to those issues," Singer said.
The pending report to Congress also evaluated the status of state systems for implementing welfare reform. The department surveyed all 50 states and three U.S. territories in December 1996 and January 1997 and found that their current welfare computer systems are alarmingly old, Ragan said.
The survey showed that 26 percent of the state systems that run Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were developed in the 1970s, 40 percent were developed in the 1980s and 34 percent in the 1990s, Ragan said. In addition, the 1970s systems were handling 53 percent of the total welfare caseload, he said.
"It's not a particularly positive picture to paint," Ragan said. "The point is simply to indicate to Congress that we can't expect miracles given that we are operating with technology that is ... at least very old if not totally out of date."
The cost estimate for implementing welfare reform from an information technology standpoint is well over $1 billion, Ragan said.
Most states are focused on networks, technical standards and hardware requirements, when they should be looking at data usage and standardization, Singer said. The information those networks will carry is a much more important issue than the hardware involved, he said.
"If you don't have a data administrator, you'd better think about getting one, as opposed to a database administrator," Singer said. "If you are a vendor and you are used to selling big mega systems ... slow down your forecasts. [States first] need to figure out what they need." He recommended that companies focus their business on strategic consulting and data administration, while states define their welfare systems.
To ensure effective sharing of information about welfare recipients, states should look at sharing data that they already collect to provide service or measure outcome, Singer said. "Good data always comes when it is part of administration, not when it is created exclusively for reporting or sharing purposes," he said.