Tag Archives: Technology

Technology – the ‘band boards’ of our program

Illustration of computer monitor, construction hat and barrier standAbout 10 years ago, we decided to remodel our house—mostly infrastructure work. We decided to replace the roof and siding, install modern doors, put in more windows, and—the fun project—remodel the kitchen.

One morning, our contractor said, “You need to replace the band boards.” I shrugged, and said, “Ok, how much will that cost?” He repeated with some urgency, “You need to replace your band boards now. They have rotted.” He paused, cleared his throat, and said, “Do you know what a band board is?” I shook my head. He said, “The band boards are the only thing attaching the second floor to the first floor.” Well, that little item was not in the budget. But I told him to fix the band boards first.

If customer service is the door to the child support program, and family-centered strategies are the windows to the rest of the world, technology is the band boards. And if the band boards need attention, that has to be the first priority for state child support programs. It’s clear that fixing the band boards, or in our case, replacing our legacy systems and technologies, is the most pressing need and top priority for many state child support agencies. In most states, child support computer systems are 15 years old.

Some of the questions we’ve heard time and again at OCSE are: “Can I use Commercial-Off-The-Shelf or ‘COTS’ software to build it?”; “What are the best new systems out there in the last five years that I might be able to leverage for my own replacement project?”; “How do I decide what the best option is for my program, my state?”; and of course, the question we hear most often, “Where do I begin?”

In the last five years, OCSE has given states more flexibility and opportunity to upgrade technology. Technology options are more flexible and modular than ever before. In 2010, we reformed the Advance Planning Document (APD) federal approval process to recognize the ongoing improvements in technology, and to give states more flexibility on low-risk projects. Under the APD process, states can now submit a feasibility study to define possible solutions, and compare, evaluate, and ultimately identify your best value to a new child support system. With an acceptable feasibility study comes not only substantial federal funding, but also significant technical assistance from OCSE throughout the life of the state’s system development project.

Recent OCSE guidance can help states take advantage of the full array of new and evolving technology products and services that can support the efficient operation and administration of not only child support programs, but also Child Welfare, Medicaid and Food Stamp programs.

We worked with a number of other federal human service programs and their state counterparts to design a comprehensive architectural framework to facilitate information sharing, improve service delivery, prevent fraud, and provide better outcomes for children and families. Called the National Human Services Interoperability Architecture (NHSIA), it brings together pieces from other architecture models such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA). NHSIA offers a foundation for common understanding, interoperability, standards, and reuse.

We also began working on a method for ensuring a reusable, repeatable standard for exchanging data between systems through the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM).

Finally, we continue our focus on delivering to our state and tribal programs the most timely, accurate technical assistance on technology-related issues. Whether you seek the advice of the technology staffs in our federal or state systems divisions here in OCSE, consult with staff in another state that has tackled a major system replacement project, or rely on your state’s knowledgeable information technology people, the idea of replacing your child support system should not be as daunting as it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Think of your child support program like you do house renovations—are you in need of a little paint and caulk, are you modernizing the windows and doors, and putting in a new kitchen—or is replacing the band boards your first order of business? We can help.

I invite the child support community of workers to submit a comment on this blog, or contact joseph.bodmer@acf.hhs.gov, director of the OCSE Division of State and Tribal Systems, for more information.

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Interoperable computer systems will mean better customer service

interoperability2Technology has the power to help break down silos between state health and human services programs and improve customer service. The promise of interoperable computer systems is that families will not have to go through multiple applications, interviews and appointments to receive services, and taxpayers will save money.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is spurring states across the Nation to create new eligibility and enrollment computer systems for Medicaid and health insurance exchanges. The ACA presents a unique opportunity for state health and human services programs to integrate their systems both vertically and horizontally, and bring our programs one step closer to the “no wrong door” approach to service delivery. In the past, this was not possible due to the requirement to cost allocate federal dollars across multiple programs.

However, through Dec. 31, 2015, states can design, develop and implement system modules that perform common functions across all health and human services programs with enhanced 90/10 federal funding if they request a federal cost allocation waiver.

Under a waiver, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as Food Stamps), and child care services can be included in the state Medicaid agency’s project to build a new eligibility determination system. Other programs, like child support and child welfare, also can join the effort to integrate service delivery to families.

In anticipation, OCSE’s parent agency, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), launched the Interoperability Initiative to help state human services programs effectively collaborate with their health care agency counterparts: Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and health insurance exchanges. In late March, OCSE was asked to manage ACF’s Interoperability Initiative because we have the background and extensive experience with data exchange standards, systems design and development, and grants management.

Our interoperability project team is busy on a number of fronts:

  • We are standing up the first Human Services Domain in NIEM (the National Information Exchange Model). It will eventually establish a common set of data elements and definitions in a format easily exchanged between different human services systems, and in fact with any system.
  • We are designing a common architecture and platform for all human services programs, called the National Human Services Interoperability Architecture (NHSIA), to support states to build less expensive, but more integrated human services systems in the future.
  • And we recently added a new project called Data Exchange Standardization. It’s based on recent legislation applicable to the child welfare and TANF programs funded under titles IV-B and IV-A of the Social Security Act. The new law requires the Office of Management and Budget and ACF, in collaboration with states, to set up a working group to define a standard way for all states to exchange the data they report to their federal programs. HR 4282, introduced by U.S. Representative Rick Berg on March 28, 2012, would extend data exchange standardization requirements to the child support program funded under title IV-D.

In the child support world, we know the benefits of interoperable systems—and we know we will not get there overnight. Systems interoperability is a long-term vision that will take a generation to achieve. But the technology is here to begin to integrate health and human services systems. Linking them will accomplish two goals: improve client outcomes and enhance operational efficiency.

Imagine a common case intake module shared by the health programs and human services programs, including child support—an intake module that could make sure families receive the services they need. Now, imagine an integrated data warehouse where client information is gathered across all of the different health and human service programs. Using data analytics, we could understand what services a client uses, when and why, and predict the action needed next to achieve the positive outcomes we want for the families who seek our services.

With interoperable systems, we may do a better job of serving the whole person and the whole family; we may more effectively share services, streamline information and business systems, and minimize duplicative costs to build, maintain and update redundant computer systems.

Look for more news on the Interoperability Initiative in the Child Support Report soon. We’re just getting started, and despite the challenge of budget pressures and doing more with less, we could not let this opportunity pass by to change the landscape of health and human services.

Through increased integration, collaboration and information-sharing across health and human services programs, ACF hopes to improve the lives of America’s children and families and provide real value to the public.

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Our Program’s Turning Point in Technology

AppsThe child support program has a deep culture of innovation and investment in technology.  Technology makes it possible to locate parents and enforce support for 17.5 million children. Technology also can help us identify effective enforcement strategies, intervene early when payments fall off, and support excellent customer service at every point of contact with our program.

The January 2012 Child Support Report highlights two of the ways that technology is improving our case management and customer service, through early-intervention “alerts” in Colorado and electronic document management in West Virginia.

We need technology to help us:

  • Locate income and assets for the 75 percent of our caseload that does not need hands-on service intervention.
  • Identify the 25 percent of parents who lack steady employment and analyze service needs.  Technology can help us conduct case analysis, segment our caseload, use data analytics, and track performance data at the caseworker, manager and executive levels. We don’t need to impute income on a routine basis anymore. We can develop income profiles of our noncustodial parents. No case should be going to court on a contempt motion without an analysis of the real financial situation of the noncustodial parent.
  • Improve customer service for a new generation of parents, many of whom grew up without a parent, have diverse ethnic backgrounds, and get their information through technology. We can expand interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can make applications for services available online for our program and other programs, and link parents to benefit calculators and program navigators.  We can develop apps, such as text4baby.
  • Develop online staff training and online resource libraries.
  • Tell our story differently through the electronic face of our program—not only to each other, but to specific groups of stakeholders, community organizations and the public—through customer-friendly websites, short videos of real parents describing their experiences, and useful online resources.

A final note: According to the USDA Expenditures on Children by Families report, the costs of child-rearing vary considerably by household income level and age of the child. The Cost of Raising a Child Calculator can estimate how much it will annually cost to raise a child. This may help your agency work with parents to plan better for overall expenses. Asset-building strategies like those in Texas (see the Child Support Report) present ways we can encourage both parents to manage their money so they are better able to support their children and improve their own situations.

Please submit a comment on this blog with a way that we might use technology as we head into a new year filled with great potential for our program.

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