Nomads battle between state and DAs
State welfare officials and Nevada’s district attorneys agree on one thing: With huge federal penalties hanging over their heads, they have to make NOMADS work well enough to get certified by next October.
Beyond that, they agree on practically nothing when it comes to the Nevada Operations Multi-Automated Data System.
State officials say it is a computer system rapidly developing into an effective tool with problems being fixed daily as the counties present them.
But county child support workers say NOMADS is a nightmare being forced down their throats despite the fact it is so complex, inefficient and riddled with computer booby traps that it will never work properly.
They charge that the system is destroying service to the single mothers who need it most.
“Child support has to do two things: go to court and disperse money. NOMADS wasn’t designed to do either,” said Annette Mansfield, who represents Washoe County in dealing with NOMADS issues.
When faced with county complaints, State Welfare Director Myla Florence and NOMADS chief Gary Stagliano argue that county caseworkers don’t have enough experience with the system and haven’t learned how to use it properly.
They dismissed more specific complaints, saying those have been fixed and the county just hasn’t gotten the word yet or that the complaint isn’t true.
After a decade of development and $126 million spent, state officials describe a system on the verge of success with only some fine-tuning needed.
“There are problems,” said Florence. “We’re identifying those.”
She added that “the core product and the functionalities are there.”
Stagliano said there are problems that make the system difficult and cumbersome to use but that those issues will be resolved after federal certification.
When pushed, they say it does no good to lay blame; the emphasis should be to finish the system, not to make accusations.
“That’s nice for them to say,” responded Washoe District Attorney Dick Gammick. “They don’t get the calls from the mother with two kids who didn’t get her check and can’t pay the rent.”
State administrators also don’t get the bills Washoe County is paying – $265,000 in overtime and up to $200,000 more in temporary employee pay for 1999, according to Washoe Family Support Director Lance Turner.
Douglas County’s Chief Civil Deputy Brian Chally agreed. “Our major focus has been to get the money to the kids, and yet the conversion is taking away our ability to get the money to the kids.”
Such a gap exists between what Florence and county child support officials say, it seems they’re talking about different systems.
A prime example is the county complaint that putting cases in the new system takes far too long and is far too complicated, requiring upward of two hours in many cases with input on up to 40 different computer screens.
“That’s not true,” said Florence, who has actually entered just one carefully prepared case herself. “Forty screens, that’s not the typical case. Just to initiate a case in NOMADS that’s what, seven or eight screens?”
Backed by Stagliano, she said it now takes veteran workers about 15 minutes to enter a case in the system.
But people who use the system say that’s not typical. A case completed in seven screens would consist only of unverified information from an initial interview with a parent seeking to open a child-support case. The case would contain no financial data or payment history, no court proceedings or orders, no correspondence with the parties involved and no detailed data from the absent parent – usually the father.
“That’s not a real-world case,” said Turner.
Despite state denials, the most critical county complaints are valid: The computer system is unbelievably complicated and illogical, replete with traps that catch even the most veteran user.
Internal problems actually generate errors and block checks from going to the single parents who depend on the money for food and rent. The system has more than 500 computer screens and a 900-page operating manual.
Because the screens are not logical, don’t follow from one to the next and require so much specific information, it can easily take two hours to enter a case.
“They took a system where we were getting checks out in about two days and made it so we’re lucky if we can turn the money around in two weeks,” said Turner.
“NOMADS takes four steps to the one in Legacy (the old system),” said Chally.
Carson District Attorney Noel Waters said the system was designed to centralize power and control, with little regard for the people who must use it in county offices.
“They’re so concerned about keeping control of their welfare cases that liquid-cooled, mainframe mentality set in. A lot of this is planning from the top down by the state,” said Waters.
It’s also a fact that, facing the specter of federal demands the state pay back up to two-thirds of the more than $100 million the system has cost, the state doesn’t care what the district attorneys think. They have to make it work well enough to get federal certification.
“The big problem is the potential penalties,” said Florence. “There’s the potential of the feds recouping everything they invested in the program and of increasing penalties in aid money for not being certified.”
That means not only paying back the federal money invested in the system, but reduced grants to the state in the future for welfare and other assistance programs as a penalty for not being certified. Florence said that would cost the state and counties millions a year.
Waters, Gammick and Chally all reluctantly agreed, saying they are committed to try meet that deadline.
“We’ve got no choice,” said Waters.
But Gammick said instead of admitting it’s a mess, the state has denied there are fundamental problems with NOMADS. Instead, state officials accuse his people of dragging their feet and not knowing the system – when they’re actually among the few who do know the system.
Once the Sept. 30 federal deadline is met, he said, work should start on a replacement that can actually do the job.
“I don’t care what it cost, throw it out now before it costs more,” he said. “I just don’t think they’ve got the guts to do it.”
But Florence and Stagliano say the system is working despite what the counties say.
“Development is done,” she said.
Stagliano said by this weekend, 70,000 of the estimated 140,000 cases in the state will be in the system.
“It’s now a matter of making modifications, fixing production problems and child support changes effective in 2000,” said Florence.
She also said counties have been involved from the start, and it’s a bit late to be arguing against the system they helped develop.
County officials say that’s not true.
“We’ve had very little overall say,” said Chally.
“No matter what the state says, the county DAs finally got into this a year and a half ago and the word was, ‘Welcome to NOMADS, this is the way we’re going to do it,'” said Gammick.
“The concept of NOMADS is tremendous, to reach border to border helping find deadbeats,” he said. “But it lost something in the translation, big time.” “NOMADS is a system built for idiots,” said Gammick. “It’s built to do all the thinking for everybody. In fact, it’s so rigid, we can’t change words in a document.”
Chally said NOMADS forms, letters and court orders are so inflexible – they can’t be edited – that most judges in the state won’t sign them. Douglas County has gone back to doing its forms in Word Perfect, even though, because it’s a different system, NOMADS doesn’t recognize that the letter or court order has been done.
They said the heart of the system is a knowledgeable caseworker who makes decisions based on the circumstances of each case.
“NOMADS won’t allow that,” said Gammick.
But county leaders say that, faced with federal threats to make the state repay most of the $100 million, state officials will never give up on NOMADS no matter how much of a disaster it is. He pointed to California, which recently tossed out its system and is fighting federal demands it repay $300 million.
Meanwhile, Douglas, Carson City and Washoe caseworkers have to spend at least one day each week doing nothing but converting and fixing NOMADS cases. That means less time with clients.
“Unfortunately, that level of service we’ve always been able to provide is going away because we just don’t have the time under NOMADS,” said Washoe’s Mansfield. “It’s actually getting in the way of providing the services it was supposed to improve.”
“Our clients have always been able to have access to our caseworkers at all times,” said Douglas DA’s office manager Vicki Barnett. “We’ve had to do away with a lot of that. Our personal way of handling things is out the window.”
Waters said Carson City has cut off client visits two days a week in order to work on NOMADS. Even more time may be needed, he said.
Florence says all the problems county workers complain about can and will be fixed, but the priority now is federal certification.
Florence told a legislative committee last year that the system may never break even. Stagliano said it should “achieve cost neutrality” by 2014.
That doesn’t include county costs. Gammick and Chally said they were supposed to save on staff because of the efficiency of NOMADS. Gammick says NOMADS, not caseload, has driven his Family Support staff to more than 50.
Chally said the same is true in Douglas County which, being much smaller, can’t afford the added staffing required. He said for small counties the only hope may be to combine with their neighbors for a regional system.