Child support enforcement official shares program management advice

Agree on measurable goals and promote incentives, suggests HHS office commissioner.

It's a big challenge, but federal managers can find ways to improve the performance of programs administered at the state and local levels, a Health and Human Services Department official said Wednesday.

After convincing officials at all levels of government to agree on a set of measurable objectives, federal program managers should design incentives for staff members to work toward those goals, said Sherri Heller, commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement at HHS. Heller, appointed to run the grant program in October 2001, offered her advice at the Excellence in Government conference sponsored by Government Executive and the Council for Excellence in Government.

By Bush administration standards, Heller's child support enforcement program is a model of success. It earned the highest score among block grant programs evaluated by the Office of Management and Budget in 2003 using the Program Assessment Rating Tool, receiving perfect grades in three of four categories and an 80 percent in the fourth. This netted Heller's program an overall grade of "effective," a level achieved by only 11 percent of the 400 programs rated in preparation for Bush's fiscal 2005 budget request.

Child support enforcement, like a variety of other grant programs, is difficult to run because federal officials have little or no control over staff members, many of whom report to state or county governments, Heller said. But, she added, this is no excuse for earning poor grades on the administration's PART evaluations.

Heller acknowledged she is fortunate because, since the mid-1990s, her program has tracked success using five concrete measures, set in statute and agreed upon by everyone involved. When evaluating performance, managers across the country look at: the percentage of fathers signing paternity forms for children born out of wedlock, the percentage of cases for which a support order has been obtained, support collected as a percentage of support owed, percentage of past due cases resulting in a collection, and cost effectiveness (support dollars collected per dollar spent on the program).

Because Heller can exercise little control over the performance of individual employees reporting at the state or local level, she exerts influence by offering financial incentives to states. Program offices exceeding performance goals receive bonuses; those falling behind are penalized.

States must obtain an audit opinion on performance data, to ensure that federal officials are distributing incentives based on accurate information. Last year, states received $450 million in bonuses and $9.2 million in penalties, Heller said.

The incentive system has yielded significant results. For example, child support collections have increased by 47 percent over the past five years, Heller said.

The program has reached a point where incentives aren't as important, Heller added. Program managers are accustomed to using the agreed-upon performance measurements, and have seen the benefits of tracking accomplishments in each area. Officials at the federal, state and local level also are planning changes to keep the measurement systems up to date and soon will add one to the list.

Heller also stressed the importance of involving third parties in assessing performance. Think tanks and academic institutions have completed valuable evaluations of the program, she said. Maintenance of a good relationship with the inspector general office is also key; IG studies can verify that a program is working, she said, helping to convince budget officials that it is a good investment.

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