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Computer Reporting Network Aids Welfare Recipients and Taxpayers.

In rural Wisconsin town, an out-of-work, single parent with three young children makes her first visit to the local county office of the Department of Human Services.

A half hour later, she leaves. That's all the time it took to determine that she had a legitimate claim for three state welfare programs: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps and Medical Assistance. One Application Serves for All Three Programs

To qualify for all three programs, the applicant filled out just one form.

"I don't know of any other fully operational statewide system that combines all welfare programs into one application," says Nancy Zeller, applications development chief, Office of Information Systems. "We've coded our software so that the system looks at all three and determines eligibility and benefits."

The all-purpose application not only cuts potential agency errors--saving an estimated $4 million annually--but better serves recipients. What's more, the three-in-one electronic processing trims about another $16 million a year from the administration tab, ultimately borne by taxpayers.

This example is one of many that Wisconsin can cite in extolling the virtues of its Computer Reporting Network (CRN), a distributed data processing network that spans the state. The network effectively serves more than 250,000 welfare cases a year by helping to ensure that recipients promptly receive benefits for food, shelter and medical needs. The state also attributes millions of dollars in annual savings to CRN's ability to help it monitor a $1-billion welfare budget and assure that funds are wisely spent.

Yet the system doesn't subject local offices to a monolithic central bureaucracy. Rather, it allows programs to be "state-supervised and county-administered." The key is distributed processing. Local Offices Do Processing

The network includes 40 IBM 8100 distributed processors, which support more than 500 terminals and printers. This gives local offices processing power and the ability to print out forms, reports and other documents on site to speed service and make effective use of staff. At the same time, data entered on the minicomputers can be passed to the state's IBM 3081 processor complex, allowing for additional processing, review and compilation.

Wisconsin's Bureau of Economic Assistance has a statewide mission embracing 72 counties, plus five agencies serving American Indian populations. Each 8100 system--equipped with its own highspeed disk storage, terminal and printers--generally serves several counties or agencies. These processors are also connected via telephone lines to a front-end IBM 3705 communications controller that directs electronic traffic for the mainframe system at the regional computing center in Madison, the state capital.

The automated system, a spin-off of a pilot program began in September 1974, has delivered impressive benefits for taxpayers and recipients. It has reduced agency errors, such as overpayments, underpayments and payments to ineligibles. Now, determination of client eligibility and delivery of initial benefits usually takes from one to two days. In the past, turnaround was from 30 to 40 days. Administrative Cost Has Shrunk

Though Wisconsin's case load has grown, its administrative costs have shrunk. The state estimates that administrative expenses would have been an additional $16 million per year (in 1983 dollars) if staff size had increased in proportion to case load. A major contributor to the administrative-cost decline is enhanced caseworker productivity.

Finally, by standardizing eligibility criteria statewide, Wisconsin has gained the ability to update programs rapidly when government regulations change.

"We're giving citizens of Wisconsin better service with CRN and its income-maintenance program," says Zeller. "We can quickly provide benefits to entitled applicants."

"The system, combined with our three-in-one application form, makes it possible to better inform the public of available benefits," adds Rich Pedersen, director, Office of Management Information. "While eligibility requirements have increased, the applicants' work has been reduced. This easing of bureaucratic procedures lets us deliver benefits in a timely and accurate fashion."

Under the old system, applicants sometimes didn't receive their share of benefits because they didn't want to participate in the time-consuming process or were not aware of the benefits available. Prior to automation, recipients sometimes waited a month or longer before receiving their first checks. Everything was manually calculated and mailed, and offices were inundated with paperwork. Today, computers generally process and print checks the same night for next-day delivery. Minicomputer Does Initial Editing

CRN made the difference when it came on line statewide in 1979, after being pilot tested in four counties. Now, after an applicant completes the form and reviews it with a caseworker, the data is entered into a distributed processor. This local minicomputer does the initial editing, checking for common entry errors or missing information. The validated information is then transmitted to the Madison mainframe by the CRN to evaluate eligibility and entitlement.

The host system in Madison processes the actual eligibility determination and grant computation for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps and Medical Assistance. Case loads for these programs are 92,000, 120,000 and 150,000, respectively. Eligibility can usually be determined within an hour and relayed back to the local minicomputer, where a case-determination sheet is printed out. The applicant is quickly informed of eligibility.

The CRN's speed has dramatically improved worker productivity. For instance, the case load between 1979 and 1981 increased 42 percent, but county staffing increased only 0.5 percent. In 1983, the unemployment rate among Wisconsin's 4.5 million population hovered around 10 percent, resulting in more claims than in previous years--but the computer system was in place to handle them.

"Data processing is finally at a point where it's helping people do more work and is getting things done," says Zeller, who oversees the 70 employees assigned to application development. Programmers assist all CRN users, including those using the system for other applications, such as office automation and electronic mail.

Programmers also play a key role when the federal government changes welfare-eligibility standards. Software is modified and cases updated in a traction of the time it would take with manual methods. Reprogramming Done on Weekends

For example, when revised regulation required major changes to ongoing cases, totaling 1,185,000 eligibility determinations, reprogramming of the computer system saved approximately 154 manyears of work by the front-line workers. The conversions were completed on weekends. So by Monday, all local offices had printouts of the recalculated welfare cases.

"Updating programs to comply with new standards, while now routine and occuring about six to seven times per year, is probably the most significant thing the computerized system does for for us," says Pedersen.

"Both the state and counties benefit from standardization," adds Zeller. "Everybody interprets the regulations the same way." That has made a major difference since the federal government began shifting additional welfare responsibilities to the states.

"The system makes it possible to do additional work, yet decreases the burden on workers and clients, and it really aids the taxpayers," Pedersen says. "We've been able to improve service for an increased number of clients without significant increases in administrative cost." According to national statistics, the state has the second-lowest administrative cost per case in the nation.

CRN also enables the state to rapidly produce reports required by the federal government. The reports often are generated and printed entirely by computer. Previously, they were painstakingly manually processed.

The reliability of the system also has meant consistent service. "And we're not just counting the number of fish that migrate upstream," Pedersen emphasizes. "We're talking about providing food and shelter to people. It's critical that the system remain operational."

While Wisconsin's distributed data processing approach reduces telephone costs by eliminating the need for all processing to be done in an interactive mode with a central host system, it simultaneously enhances system reliability for offices scattered across the state's 56,000 square miles, because agencies can be productive even if communications are severed--a not-uncommon occurrence in Wisconsin, with its harsh winters and approximately 150 separate telephone companies.

The CRN will further benefit the state as additional applications are implemented. The Institute for Research on Poverty, at the University of Wisconsin--Madison, is now conducting a study to determine the parameters for an automated welfare system that would offer the ultimate in efficiency and service.
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Publication:Communications News
Date:Jun 1, 1984
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