Human Services Agencies Steer A New Course

Eye on the States Thomas R. Davies

Human Services Agencies
Steer A New Course

The last three years have seen enormous changes in how state government provides services to the elderly, the disabled, the poor and other citizens in need.

They stem in part from the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and related welfare reform legislation at the state level. Newly released profiles of state human services agencies illustrate how governments have begun implementing the changes mandated under reform.

The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is a revealing example of the challenges facing state human service agencies. It was created in 1996 to provide services and benefits for children, families and the elderly, assisting them in becoming economically self-sufficient.

One of DCF's most complex challenges is coordinating Temporary Aid for Needy Families benefits with the state's Welfare-to-Work and child care programs. These programs have proven to be the most important elements of welfare reform. To coordinate them, the state developed a multi-agency program called Work And Gain Economic Self-sufficiency (WAGES) and also developed the systems needed to collect, store and process new data requirements.

The WAGES program, among other things, limits benefits for most individuals to two years within a five-year period, and places a 48-month lifetime limit on cash assistance. WAGES is cooperatively administered by DCF, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and Employment Security. Its data processing occurs on the Florida On-Line Recipient Integrated Data Access system, which supports much of the state's human service data processing.

DCF is simultaneously responding to new initiatives in welfare-to-work, case management/eligibility determination and child care. The welfare-to-work and case management initiatives include new or enhanced automated systems. And Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles recently announced an expansion of DCF's child care services, which includes an $80 million increase in spending to bring the program to over $400 million.

Other states are grappling with these issues. Within the past few months, some have announced significant human services programs and technology initiatives. Nine state governors have programs to expand access to child care. Twenty-one states have initiatives for new case management/eligibility systems. Nine states have information technology initiatives for welfare-to-work.

With the increased focus on these programs, and the greater coordination required with other state agencies, many states like Florida are continuing to restructure their human service agencies.

In 1997, Illinois merged three state agencies to create the Department of Human Services. New York recently combined two of its human service agencies into a single one called the Department of Family Assistance.

These reorganizations reflect how states are shifting personnel and resources to focus on the challenges of delivering coordinated care for human services. Streamlining the agencies that provide these services is a natural outcome of the shift to coordinated care. The push to streamline and deliver results will be given a boost with more than $1 billion available from the federal government over a five-year period to reward states for exceptional performance.

Coordinated care business practices are key to better delivery of services to citizens. And new technology applications will enable states to deliver on the promise of coordinated care.

To provide one-stop service, states are expected to re-design their business processes, integrate their disparate systems and build massive data warehouses. Because many states are also devolving delivery responsibilities to service providers at the community level, the systems must support coordinated care across multiple programs, levels of government, organizations and geographies.

Once the year 2000 problem is under control, states are expected to begin an enormous effort to modernize human services technology and business practices. But policy-makers are not waiting; they are taking action that will accelerate the trends toward coordinated care and delivery, streamlining organizations, modernizing systems and creating performance measures. For example, the Senate just passed legislation (HR 1385), which will revamp the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982.

The proposed legislation will consolidate more than 70 different vocational, literacy and job placement programs and place them under state agencies' control. If the legislation is signed into law, the new job training provisions will give states greater flexibility in how they provide employment-related services by reshaping the programs and organizations that run them into simpler, one-stop access points.

Now more than ever, it is important that vendors have a detailed understanding of the changes taking place in state government. State government buyers are interested in doing business with companies that know as much about the business of state government as they do about technology.

For the first time in quite awhile, the states are open to new ways of doing business. It is an opportunity for many companies to demonstrate they can deliver business value as well as the latest technologies.

Thomas R. Davies is vice president of Federal Sources State and Local Government Consulting practice in McLean, Va. David DeBrandt provided research support.

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