Web Comes to the Aid of Human Services

System eases collaboration of agencies and tracking, monitoring of cases.

Question: what do you get when you mix antiquated legacy systems, state bureaucracy and caseworkers from branches of a states health and human services agencies? Answer: wasted time, wasted effort and wasted money.

That was the case in the commonwealth of Massachusetts up to a year ago, when it was common for up to 15 social workers and welfare agents to all be working with the same constituent on the same issues and never knowing about the duplication. "There was this wild collection of duplicate and conflicting services as well as gaps in service," said Henry Swiniarski, assistant secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, in Boston.

But when federal welfare reform demanded improvements in health and human services programs, heads at the EOHHS knew something had to change. To create efficiency, the EOHHS decided to develop a Web-based system that would allow for collaboration among agencies and would track and monitor the status of cases. The result? Dramatically improved delivery of health and human services using existing systems and an estimated savings of $25 million a year.

Technology has been slow to arrive in the government sector. Now, driven by e-government initiatives and the need for collaboration, government agencies such as the EOHHS are setting an example with their integration of legacy systems and use of the Web.

"A common complaint in human services is that agencies are so stove-piped that it makes it next to impossible, and extremely costly, for them to communicate with one another," said Bill Keller, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "Web services are sort of the next big thing."

With a budget of nearly $9 billion, the EOHHS is the largest state secretariat in Massachusetts, with 15 agencies providing a wide range of protective and social services. Its size made intra-agency collaboration difficult. Each agency had separate client information and financial tracking systems, resulting in the duplication of services and difficulty tracking and reporting results.

Two years ago, the EOHHS hired Systems Engineering Inc., an integrator in Waltham, Mass., to begin planning a Web-based system that would link its 15 legacy mainframe systems.

In the fall of 1999, SEI helped the EOHHS launch the MassCARES (Massachusetts Confidential Access to Resources through an Electronic Storehouse) project. With the intention of eventually moving to Microsoft Corp.s .Net Web services framework, EOHHS decided to build its Web system on a Windows 2000 Datacenter platform using SQL Server 2000 databases.

Because the agency was unwilling to turn its back on the huge investments it had made in legacy systems, tearing out the mainframes was never an option. The first step was to connect a hodgepodge of back-end systems. By linking the systems, the EOHHS could use XML to pull data and store it in a central information storehouse, which would be the foundation of the MassCARES model. Built on a SQL Server 2000 database, the storehouse provides a central count of the 1.2 million consumers served by the EOHHS. Online analytical processing database software allows EOHHS employees to access and analyze data.

SEI also developed a Web application front end using Microsofts I-Frame technology. I-Frame controls access to data by providing graded, authenticated access to MassCARES applications. Privileges granted to each level of access are provided by the agencies. Employees authenticate using a user name and password, after which an XML string is established to determine what they can access and how information is presented.

The first phase of the MassCARES project, which is being piloted in Brockton, Mass., Springfield, Mass., and EOHHS office in Boston, cost the state $5 million. Already, the EOHHS is seeing a return on investment in the form of better access to data and the elimination of duplicate IT functions, Swiniarski said.

Whats still lacking is the ability to grant agencies access to each others files. That will come in the second phase of the project. SEI and EOHHS IT managers now are linking application components using Microsofts .Net Framework concepts in preparation for a move to Web services, which will eventually allow the EOHHS to make its information more accessible to recipients of its services with Web portals and self-service eligibility screening. This second phase is expected to bring the budget for the four-year project to $23 million.

"The important thing is that services have to be developed to overcome digital divide," said Gartners Keller. "These plans to move toward Web services show there are ways to do that at the not-for-profit level."