Child Support Enforcement: Leadership Essential to Implementing Effective Automated Systems

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-09-10.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources,
                          Committee on Ways and Means,
                          House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
10 a.m.
                          CHILD SUPPORT
September 10, 1997        ENFORCEMENT

                          Leadership Essential to
                          Implementing Effective
                          Automated Systems
                          Statement of Joel C. Willemssen
                          Director, Information Resources Management
                          Accounting and Information Management Division

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We appreciate the opportunity to share with you today the results of our
recent review of automated systems being developed by the states to aid in
the enforcement of child support payments. Our report on this subject,
published June 30,1 details a number of recommendations we believe the
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must implement to
increase the likelihood that states will develop effective systems.

Collection of child support continues to lag nationwide; according to HHS,
payment is made in only about 20 percent of cases. As a result, millions of
children may not be adequately provided for or may need to rely on
welfare. Child support payments will become even more important to
recipients who may cease to be covered under the new welfare legislation.

Along with evaluating the implications of the welfare reform legislation,
our review focused on the status of state development activities, including
costs incurred, and the role of HHS in overseeing state efforts. As you
know, current law calls for implementation and federal certification of
statewide systems to track determination of paternity and child support
collections by October 1 of this year—just 3 weeks from today.

In brief, Mr. Chairman, our review found that while automation can be
quite beneficial in locating more noncustodial parents and increasing
collections, the progress of many states in implementing automated
systems has been slow. At the same time, a great deal of money has been
spent, with the federal government funding 90 percent of state costs
associated with systems development. The lack of progress can be partly
attributed to the limited leadership of HHS’ Office of Child Support
Enforcement (OCSE) and the inadequate systems approaches of some
states. Specifically, OCSE did not perform technical reviews commensurate
with the size and complexity of this nationwide undertaking. OCSE did not
require states to follow a structured systems development approach, nor
did it assess progress at critical decision points, thereby missing
opportunities to intervene and successfully redirect systems development.
As a result, development in many states has floundered, even as funding
continued to be approved.

Our report makes several specific recommendations to the Secretary of
Health and Human Services designed to help states develop automated

 Child Support Enforcement: Strong Leadership Required to Maximize Benefits of Automated Systems
(GAO/AIMD-97-72, June 30, 1997).

Page 1                                                                     GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
                      child support enforcement systems that perform as required, and to
                      maximize the federal government’s return on costly technology

                      My testimony today will discuss the benefits that automated systems are
                      beginning to provide as well as the cost to date, problems that impeded
                      early progress, the need for stronger federal leadership, and challenges
                      posed by the new welfare legislation.

                      The general well-being of children and families has long been a critical
The Child Support     national policy goal. The Child Support Enforcement Program was created
Enforcement Program   by the Congress in 1975 as title IV-D of the Social Security Act. Its goals
                      are to increase the collection of child support from noncustodial parents,
                      and to reduce the federal, state, and local expenditures that often fill the
                      gap when such support is not provided. In 1996, over 8 million children
                      relied on welfare, constituting over two-thirds of those individuals
                      receiving benefits under Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC).2

                      State-administered, the child support program is overseen by OCSE along
                      with HHS regional offices nationwide. Total collections jumped 80 percent
                      from 1990 to 1995—from $6 billion to almost $11 billion. Yet the total
                      number of cases also increased over the same period, rising from
                      13 million to 20 million. Consequently, the number of cases in which
                      collections are being made has remained between 18 and 20 percent.

                      State programs are directly responsible for providing the child support
                      enforcement services that families need; these services can range from
                      establishing a child’s paternity to locating the absent parent and obtaining
                      a court order for payment, along with collection. These state programs are
                      organized in different ways and follow different policies and procedures;
                      some are managed centrally, while others are run locally by government
                      entities or private contractors.

                      As in many other areas, automation has been viewed as a critical tool in
                      addressing the rapidly growing caseloads and increasing costs. In 1980 the
                      Congress, seeking to promote the use of automated systems to assist in
                      child support collection, authorized federal payment of 90 percent of
                      states’ total costs in planning, designing, developing, installing, or
                      enhancing such systems.

                        Effective July 1, 1997, AFDC was replaced by TANF—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—in
                      block-grant form.

                      Page 2                                                                      GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
                      OCSE  requires that these systems be implemented statewide, and be
                      capable of performing several specific functions.3 The Family Support Act
                      of 1988 mandated that each state have such a system operational by
                      October 1, 1995. However, when only five states were able to meet this
                      date, the Congress extended the deadline by 2 years, to October 1 of this

                      Developing these systems requires completion of a difficult, complex
                      series of tasks. Along with funding, law and regulations require the federal
                      government—through HHS—to provide leadership and technical assistance
                      and to set standards for effective systems development. The federal
                      government must also oversee the process through state visits, review of
                      planning documents, and a final, on-site certification once a state requests
                      it. OCSE also has the authority to suspend or withhold funding,
                      although—until recently—this was rarely invoked. Once certified, states
                      can obtain additional federal funding—66 percent—for operations and

                      Many states have made progress in their automation projects, and officials
Systems Costly Yet    report tangible benefits from their systems. Benefits reported by state
Show Benefits; Some   program and systems personnel include an improved ability to locate
States Will Miss      noncustodial parents through the ability of automated systems to interface
                      with other state and federal databases, improved tracking of paternity
Deadline              establishment and enforcement actions, an increase in dollars collected,
                      and a decrease in the amount of time needed to process payments
                      achieved through greater worker efficiency and productivity.

                      Benefits do, however, come at a high price. As the chart attached to my
                      statement today indicates, through fiscal year 1996, that price has been a
                      federal contribution of about $2 billion of the total $2.6 billion spent. And
                      as costs have continued to mount, states’ progress has varied
                      considerably; many states seriously underestimated the costs and time
                      required for developing such systems.

                      According to both state and federal officials, at least some states will be
                      unable to make next month’s deadline. At the close of our audit work on
                      March 31 of this year, OCSE’s director of state child support information
                      systems estimated that 14 states—representing 44 percent of the nation’s
                      total caseload—would likely miss the October certification deadline.

                       These functions include case initiation, case management, financial management, enforcement,
                      security, privacy, and reporting—all requirements that can help locate noncustodial parents and
                      monitor child support cases.

                      Page 3                                                                         GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
                    Irrespective of the specific numbers, however, it seems clear that on
                    October 2, the challenge of implementing these systems nationwide will, to
                    a great extent, remain.

                    Historically, three major problem areas have impeded progress in
Problems Impeded    developing and implementing child support systems. The first was OCSE’s
Early Development   delay in setting systems requirements. Private industry and all levels of
Progress            government acknowledge the importance of defining requirements
                    because of the substantial payoff later in developing systems that are
                    cost-effective, completed on time, and meet users’ needs. Originally
                    expected in 1990, final requirements were not established until June 1993.
                    Obviously, states could proceed only so far in development until knowing
                    what specific functions their systems would need to perform; this also
                    caused problems with contractors. OCSE explained this delay by citing its
                    own failure to use an incremental approach to defining requirements,
                    along with a lengthy review process.

                    The second area that made the development process more difficult for
                    states was a 1990 OCSE decision that states transfer—for their own
                    use—systems that were already in operation in other states. The idea
                    behind this mandate is sound; software reuse, as it is called, can reduce
                    development time and cost, improve productivity, and improve the
                    reliability of the software itself. However, this directive was made before
                    OCSE had assessed whether a sufficient number of systems were available
                    to be transferred. In fact, only eight certified systems were in use—and
                    these were certified on the basis of OCSE’s older requirements. No systems
                    had been certified using the more extensive 1988 requirements.
                    Consequently, many states attempted to transfer systems that were
                    incomplete and/or otherwise incompatible, causing additional expense
                    and delay.

                    Third, OCSE has been reluctant to implement a recommendation made in
                    our 1992 report4—to suspend federal funding when major problems are
                    identified. It cited its belief that the “most constructive approach,
                    especially with a statutory deadline, is to provide technical assistance to
                    the [s]tates rather than suspend funding.” It has temporarily, however,
                    withheld funding when it found variations in cost figures or had other
                    concerns about a system’s direction.

                     Child Support Enforcement: Timely Action Needed to Correct Systems Development Problems
                    (GAO/IMTEC-92-46, Aug. 13, 1992).

                    Page 4                                                                   GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
                      In addition to these early problems, OCSE’s oversight of state child support
Ineffective Federal   systems has been narrowly focused throughout and, as a result, ineffective
Leadership Inhibits   in assessing the states’ systems development approaches and progress.
States’ Progress      One of the primary ways in which OCSE obtains information about state
                      plans and progress is through state advance planning documents and their
                      updates. Yet OCSE does not use these tools to proactively oversee, monitor,
                      or control major investments in systems development projects. Rather, it
                      operates in large part through paperwork review tied to funding
                      authorization and monitoring of self-assessed progress.

                      OCSE  also does not require that states follow a structured, disciplined
                      approach to systems development because—according to OCSE itself—it
                      lacks the necessary technical expertise and resources to evaluate progress
                      at critical points in the systems development process. Instead, it has
                      focused mainly on whether states are meeting or expect to meet systems
                      requirements—according to the states’ own evaluations—and their
                      progress toward meeting this October’s deadline.

                      Another critical factor is whether actions cited in planning documents
                      provided to OCSE are properly carried out and reflect what the states are
                      actually doing. We found that states were sometimes put in a position of
                      having to present inaccurate—some felt impossible—schedules showing
                      that they would indeed meet the October deadline; otherwise, continued
                      funding was jeopardized. As one state official put it, “[the planning
                      documents] are an administrative exercise to justify obtaining funding.”

                      OCSE’s  oversight has also been constrained by its timing. Since the detailed
                      certification reviews of systems come only at the end of the development
                      process, when invited in by states that see their systems as complete, the
                      opportunity to change direction early—when problems are first noted—is

                      A final problem we see in OCSE’s approach is that it monitors systems
                      development strictly on a state-by-state basis. What would be more helpful
                      to the states—especially those farther behind in the development
                      process—would be a nationwide perspective in which trends could be
                      assessed and best practices and lessons learned could be shared, in the
                      hopes that similar problems could be avoided by other states.

                      Page 5                                                      GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
                           As you know, Mr. Chairman, the welfare reform legislation enacted last
Welfare Reform             year dramatically altered the nation’s welfare system by requiring work in
Raises the Stakes          exchange for time-limited assistance.5 Child support is an integral part of
                           welfare reform, because for those who find themselves newly ineligible for
                           traditional welfare benefits and, for whatever reason, unable to work,
                           child support payments may be the only remaining means of support.

                           Given this new reality, states are required to operate child support
                           enforcement programs that meet federal requirements in order to be
                           eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block-grant funding.
                           OCSE plans to release guidance to states incrementally as policy decisions
                           are made final; this is critical if states are to incorporate such new
                           requirements while at the same time finishing development of basic child
                           support enforcement systems.

                           Another demand that must be simultaneously met is the need to develop
                           systems—and reconfigure existing systems that interface with them—that
                           can process date-sensitive information into the next century and
                           beyond—what has come to be known as the Year 2000 problem.6

                           The challenges being faced by those forced to do without the child support
Federal Leadership         to which they are entitled compel the federal government to fulfill its
Must Be Strengthened       legislative mandate of providing leadership and ensuring that systems are
                           developed that can help track noncustodial parents who are not paying
                           child support. To enhance the likelihood of developing effective systems,
                           we have recommended that the Secretary of Health and Human Services
                           direct that the Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and
                           Families, take a number of actions, including

                       •   developing and implementing a structured approach to reviewing
                           automation projects;
                       •   developing a mechanism for verifying that states follow generally accepted
                           systems development practices to minimize project risks and costly errors;
                       •   using an evaluative approach for planned and ongoing state information
                           technology projects, one that focuses on expected and actual costs,
                           benefits, and risks;

                            The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
                            The Year 2000 problem arises because many computer systems were designed such that using “00” to
                           signify the year can be read as 1900, rather than 2000. See Year 2000 Computing Crisis: Time Is
                           Running Out for Federal Agencies to Prepare for the New Millennium (GAO/T-AIMD-97-129, July 10,

                           Page 6                                                                          GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
•   conducting timely post-implementation reviews on certified child support
    systems to determine whether they are providing expected benefits; and
•   providing the states with technical requirements for implementing welfare
    reform systems with sufficient time to allow the states to meet new
    legislatively mandated deadlines.

    Quick action on these and other recommendations that we have made can
    go a long way toward implementing effective systems that will locate more
    noncustodial parents and increase collections.

    Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be happy to respond
    to any questions that you or other Members of the Subcommittee may
    have at this time.

    Page 7                                                   GAO/T-AIMD-97-162

Cumulative Funds Spent on Child Support
Enforcement Systems, Fiscal Years

            Dollars in millions





                                                                Federal share

         1981 82   83   84   85   86     87     88    89   90    91   92   93   94   95   96

                                       Source: HHS.

(511234)                               Page 8                                                  GAO/T-AIMD-97-162
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