Big business fails to fix state food stamp system
Friday, 02 April 2010

(CIOZone) By Mark Henricks

Information technology can deliver the bytes, but when it comes to feeding hungry people, some would say IT bites. Major IT suppliers have failed miserably in two massive attempts to modernize state government food stamp systems. In 2007, Texas canceled an $899 million contract with Accenture to setup and run the state's system for enrolling welfare recipients. And in 2009, Indiana handed walking papers to IBM, which had been lead contractor on a similar $1.34 billion effort.

Accenture's effort had generated many complaints from Texas residents about inaccuracies and improper benefit denials. IBM, according to Indiana, had made too little progress on a corrective action plan to fix poor service. Since then, Indiana has forged ahead with some of the IBM team members on what it calls a hybrid plan. In that vision, applicants still have to visit an office for many purposes, but call centers, document imaging and other elements the team had introduced are also deployed.

Texas, meanwhile, has largely gone back to the way it was working before. Today, the system keeps 80 percent of welfare records on paper, according to a new state auditor's report. The same report said welfare workers rarely answered telephones and their voice mailboxes were often full. A spokesperson for the office of the executive commissioner of Texas' health and human services department described the situation as "almost like a system that time forgot."

The result is that Texas has been unable to meet a federally required 30-day time limit for processing food stamp applications. As recession created a 45 percent increase in applications since 2008, a record 3.3 million Texans began receiving aide. Despite high unemployment, however, health and human services has been unable to hire enough qualified processors to speed applications and avoid errors.

The Texas auditor's report suggested automated kiosks to simplify and speed applications. Another recommendation was to let more applicants check status of cases online. Right now, the state only allows a limited number of applicants to get status information online.

Patience with the outdated system is wearing thin. A Texas legal aid group sued the state in 2009, alleging the mounting backlog was producing hungry citizens.

It's not easy to know who to blame for big-league IT consulting's strikeouts in government welfare enrollment. What to blame is easier. Texas' antiquated approach has won it the label of nation's worst performing food stamp program. It's slow in handling applications, and does a poor job of getting eligible people to apply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program at the federal level.

IT and welfare have not seen the last of each other. Although the relationship has been stormy, clearly, these systems need to be modernized and state IT departments haven't done the job adequately on their own to date. Unless Indiana's hybrid approach and Texas' long-awaited new computer system manage to turn things around, it'll be time for government and IT providers to clear the desk, forget the past, and get it right.

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