The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Dr. Sherri Heller interview

Friday, April 18th, 2003 - 20:00
Dr. Sherri Heller
Radio show date: 
Sat, 04/19/2003
Intro text: 
Missions and Programs; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships...

Missions and Programs; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships

Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, the co-chairman of the IBM Endowment for The Business of Government. We created The Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about The Endowment by visiting us on the web at

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation this morning is with Dr. Sherri Heller. Sherri is the Commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Good morning, Sherri.

Dr. Heller: Hi.

Mr. Lawrence: Joining us our conversation is Therese Morin. Good morning, Therese.

Ms. Morin: Good morning, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: Sherri, could you give us an overview of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement?

Dr. Heller: There's about 200 staff here in Washington, and then additional staff that aren't directly in the Office of Child Support Enforcement, but they're in our 10 regional HHS offices. They help us because most of our program is run through state and county agencies; so a lot of what we do is try to provide incentives, persuasion, technical assistance, and help to people on the front lines in state and local government.

Mr. Lawrence: How would you describe their mission?

Dr. Heller: It used to be just about money. I mean, that's primarily how people think of us, as sort of a collection agency for people who had children out of wedlock or who got divorced, and now the courts have decided that they owe money to the partner who is raising the children, so that the children have the resources they need, and it was all about collecting the money and getting the money to the kids.

And while that's still the primary mission, I think we are trying to bring more of a sense of justice to the office, so that it's not just about money, so that absent dads, for example, who pay their bills and pay their child support and don't get access to their children feel like the system of justice works for them too. And the people raising the kids who feel like the absent parents ran off and are hiding and aren't doing their fair share as parents, they feel they can get a sense of justice also.

Mr. Lawrence: What are the skills of the 200 people? As you've described this, I imagine so many very different parts.

Dr. Heller: They vary considerably. We have a lot of the staff who are mainly technical, automation people, because so much of the work we do, as I'm sure we'll talk about later, is highly, highly automated. And they provide a lot of technical assistance to state and local government folks who are trying to automate their child support systems.

Other people are just highly skilled at getting through to and speaking clearly about bureaucratic stuff to very angry, upset people. By the time people get to us, they're often very frustrated and they feel like they haven't been given a sense of justice. So we have some people who are just very skilled at settling people down and getting them to focus on what can actually be done to help the justice system work better for them.

So it varies a lot between technical knowledge, interpersonal skills, policy-making skills, teaching skills, because we do a lot of teaching of our partners in our state and local government.

Ms. Morin: Sherri, what are your roles and responsibilities as commissioner?

Dr. Heller: I think of myself primarily as an inspiring leader. That's how I want to be viewed at least. I give people a sense that seemingly insoluble problems can be solved, a clarity of mission. When there are 17 e-mails in your inbox and 10 angry customers, what do you do first? Do you pay attention to the mom who's in poverty and is most desperate for the $100 she's owed? Or do you pay attention to the $500,000-a-year doctor who ran out of state to avoid his obligations? Do you attention to the big money first, or to the most in need first? Those are very tough choices, and public servants have a hard time making them confidently.

I think my role is to have absolute clarity of message so people know what to pay attention to.

Ms. Morin: That's a very challenging role. What in your background has prepared you for it?

Dr. Heller: There's a lot of things. I've spent over 20 years in state and local government. This job is actually my first term as a fed. I worked in a county courthouse for many years, and in my role as county administrator I managed things as diverse as the prison (the prison warden reported to me), the 911 center, the tax assessment office, the juvenile detention center, the county nursing home, quite a lot of variety there.

In state government I worked for two different governors, and I also worked for the leader of the state senate. So I think I have some pretty practical knowledge of what it takes to get people to change the way they do things.

Mr. Lawrence: Was there any one experience that prepared you best for this job?

Dr. Heller: I think probably the best preparation I had was working for Governor Ridge. I worked for Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, and I managed welfare reform there. That was a revolution in how systems and financing streams and the tools of government could be changed to change individual human beings decisions about how they spent their time. Should I work or stay home with my kid? How do you move a big government system to change one person's decision about going to work?

So that means when I came to Washington and had to deal with 54 different states and jurisdictions, how do I get Kansas to do something more like Pennsylvania does? Or how do I respect California's way of doing things and the fact that it's very different from Nevada's, and still help a mom living in Nevada and the dad's in California, and how do I get the money there? So the idea of learning how to take big, blunt tools and affect individual decisions. What I learned doing welfare reform for Governor Ridge, has helped me be prepared, I think.

Mr. Lawrence: Let's continue down this avenue. Could you do a little more comparing and contrasting the state perspective and the federal perspective in terms of people and management styles and those kinds of things?

Dr. Heller: When you're in county government you can always say to your constituent who you run into in the grocery store, the state people made me do it that way. And when you're in the state capital, you can always shrug and say to the Associated Press reporter or the local legislator, the feds made me do it that way.

Now that you're in federal government, the buck stops here. They're asking for help, and you have to provide it to them. You can't blame it on somebody else. So that's one big difference.

I would say that financial incentives matter a lot more in the federal government. A lot of how you get things done is to provide financial incentives for state and local governments to take advantage of new opportunities. But ultimately, I don't think it's that different. Dealing with 67 counties when I sat in the state capitol is not all that different from sitting in Washington and dealing with 54 states and territories. I think it comes down to financial incentives on the one hand, and clear message and inspiration, helping people have confidence that their efforts are going to pay off.

Mr. Lawrence: Let me ask you about two specific things. How about in terms of the speed by which you do things? Is the federal government faster or slower than the state?

Dr. Heller: No, I've found them to be similar. Things always take longer than they should.

Mr. Lawrence: How about just in terms of communication? Often folks discover that the federal government is just so much larger that an effort to communicate is not walking down the hall and seeing your staff, it's a much broader constituency?

Dr. Heller: I think technology has changed that equation considerably, and it even changes what I used to think was the difference between county, state, and federal government, and I'll explain both.

It used to be if you were in county government and you ran into your constituent in the grocery store, the person talked to you about what was wrong, but then when you went to the state capital or the federal capital, it became very distant, a letter in the mail, if that. So you were sort of more sheltered from the impact of your decision on a real family.

I don't think that's true anymore. I get e-mails on my desktop from individual mothers and fathers who don't feel like they got justice from the child support system, and there are real conversations. I think that's also true about what you said about the time it takes to do things.

Years ago, it might have taken longer to get a bill through Congress, but now moment by moment we're sending language back and forth and talking to legislative staffers between fax machines, e-mails, and cell phones, it's a much more rapid pace. It probably doesn't feel that way to a family who is waiting for a law to change before they can get relief, but the process of doing it, of making the change happen, can sometimes be very rapid.

Mr. Lawrence: How about in terms of just your management? Has your management style changed, or are there different tools now being used at the different level?

Dr. Heller: I would say that the reasons my management style has changed don't have to do with being a fed rather than a state government person, but with things you learn over the years. Sometimes, for example, I had successes in my career by giving really colorful speeches or colorful statements to the press, and getting people riled up to want the change that I was seeking. I learned over the years that sometimes it's better to be less provocative. Instead of picking a fight and getting everybody all riled up, maybe you make an ally and find out if you have mutual interests.

But I think that probably happens to most people in most careers: you learn how to make allies, and that fighting the good fight while exciting is not necessarily the way to get the result you want.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We have to go to a break. Rejoin us in a few minutes as we continue talking with Dr. Sherri Heller of HHS. How does one evade child support, and how are these folks caught? We'll ask Sherri to explain this to us when The Business of Government Hour returns.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Sherri Heller. Sherri is the Commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Joining us in our conversation is Therese Morin.

Ms. Morin: Sherri, based on your experience, can you paint for us a picture of how children are affected by missing child support payments?

Dr. Heller: Sure. I think it almost goes without saying that at this point it's very hard to raise a child in a one-income household for most people. So if you're a single parent, you had a child out of wedlock or you're a divorcee, it's a struggle, it really is, and there are serious financial consequences to growing up in a single-parent household. We know that 26 percent of single parents are below the poverty line. That's a pretty high number. Even the middle-class ones I think struggle to do what the kids need.

More and more, I think the child support system is recognizing also that it's not just a matter of finances; that growing up without two parents in your life is a struggle for kids and has long-term consequences.

Ms. Morin: Can you also add the provisions that are included for locating missing parents through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996?

Dr. Heller: That's a mouthful, isn't it?

Ms. Morin: It certainly is.

Dr. Heller: We're learned to call it PRWORA.

Ms. Morin: Even that's a mouthful.

Dr. Heller: Although I like the name of the legislation quite a bit, the idea of reconciling personal responsibility and work opportunities, in other words, the system doesn't owe you a living. The system doesn't take care of you and your child. You have to show some personal responsibility. But you have to have the opportunities to work. You just can't do it by yourself. You need job training and work opportunities. Reconciling those two things, I think that's a great name for the welfare reform legislation that passed in the 1990s.

Everybody knows that the welfare reform legislation I think has a time limit on how long you can receive welfare, and work requirements, and things of that nature. I think the public is less aware that huge changes were made in child support rules. From the point of view of the individual family in the courtroom, they don't look that huge. You still go into a courtroom and the judge still decides who owes who how much child support, and the guidelines for how much you owe and whether both incomes are considered or only the absent parent's income, all those things are still decided at the state level.

But the question you get at, how do we find the absent parent who doesn't want to be found, and how do we enforce the child support obligation, is completely transformed by this legislation with a major federal role and a major dependence on automation. I'll give you a couple of examples. Now, unlike it was in the past, employers, any employer in the country, is obligated to report to the state child support office within 20 days anytime somebody gets a job. Anybody. You, me. It doesn't matter whether you're a child support obligor or not. It's just a matter of routine. You take the W-2 form and you fax it in just like you would for tax data.

Within a very short time, that all gets sort of eaten up into a big federal national database on new hires. That means probably within a month of somebody getting a new job, the child support system can find that person and attach his wages to begin taking part of the wages to pay the child support obligation. That's quite extraordinary I think.

We get over 60 million reports of that nature a year. The number is big, but you have to remember we get them on everybody, not just people who owe child support. So what's happening is that every night in the big federal computer, we're matching up the list of child support obligors - people who owe child support - with the list of people who just got a job, and immediately we're sending out a wage attachment order to that employer. And it all happens virtually without human intervention. There are a lot of people taking care of the computer, but it's quite automated, and I think it's an astonishing database.

Another example: every quarter, every bank, credit union, and mutual fund in the country, and all other financial institutions, matches its database of depositors with our database of everybody who owes delinquent child support. So every bank, every institution, does this every quarter. So every night we're running these things. The result is for somebody who quits his job every time we attach his wages or who works under the table, or even who is self-employed, so we can't attach his wages, we find his or her money in the bank account. And the state, once we found it at the federal level, we tell the state and the state can seize the money in that bank account, can freeze it, and seize it and take it to pay the child support obligation.

All of this automation, all of those rules about how the banks behave and how we do this matching, was all from the welfare reform legislation, and it's been pretty astonishing.

Ms. Morin: I would assume that that is the way you'd generally find the child support evaders, or are there other ways?

Dr. Heller: No, that's a pretty effective way, is to use this kind of database. There is information that states have that goes beyond employment information. They have driver's information, they have hunting license information, and we can seize assets as well as locate people. So we might not be able to find somebody who was last working in Tennessee, but we can discover that he owns a hunting cabin in Pennsylvania, and we can seize that asset.

On the one hand, I think it can be perceived as Big Brotherish that we have all this data. On the other hand, the Congress put in quite a few security and privacy protections, and we've had no difficulties of that nature. What I should probably draw your attention to is how effective it's been. The effectiveness of the program has just about doubled since 1997 when we first began implementing. At that time, in 1997, we had about 38 percent of the cases with child support orders that actually got money. Now we're at 70 percent. That's pretty extraordinary.

I'll do a simple fraction for you, because it tells you the good news and the bad news, what's really exciting about what's happened, and what makes me dissatisfied, and fire up the staff about we're not there yet. Look at it this way. Now we're to the point where two-thirds of the people who come in asking for child support help get a child support order. We locate the person, we assess his wages and see what he can afford to pay and what she needs, or vice versa, and actually put a child support order in place.

About two-thirds of the time that we have an order, we actually get a payment. We're able to intercept the tax refund, for example. That's another technique we have. We intercept people's tax refunds. Or we attach wages, or by whatever mechanism, we get a payment. That's virtually double what it was 5 years ago; I gave you those statistics.

On the other hand, let's do the fraction. Two-thirds times two-thirds, two-thirds of the people get an order who ask for help, two-thirds of the orders get a collection, two-thirds times to-thirds is four-ninths. Four-ninths is not even half. That means still fewer than half, about 44 percent, of the people who come in asking for help getting child support are getting any. So on the one hand, this automation has worked extraordinarily well. What other government program do you know of that has doubled its effectiveness in 5 years? And it's not good enough.

Mr. Lawrence: Take us through the management challenges of each of the two-thirds. The first two-thirds is people who are able to find the delinquent spouse or responsible party. What about the other one-third? How are they evading many of the things you just described?

Dr. Heller: Well, it's complicated. Why can't we get a child support - maybe they are trying to get lost. To a certain extent, all of this automation has been built up state by state, and people have been able to get lost by crossing state lines. One of my current management challenges right now is to fix interstate case processing, so it's not so easy to escape by just being invisible to this computer and visible to that one. So there are those kinds of problems.

Also I think there's a culture change that has to happen in certain low-income communities, and, indeed, in the agencies that help low-income persons. Let's take a typical welfare agency, and I think the culture of the people who grew up working in that agency is I will help you get money so that you don't have to depend on that guy ever again. That is not right. That puts a level of dependence on government that shouldn't be there.

But if you believe that, you're not likely to coach your client, you're not likely to say, let's find him, he could get you child support. You're working a lot of hours. Now that you've gone through welfare reform, you're working a lot of hours, you're working as hard as you can; he's still not. Let's work on child support. He ought to be working some of these hours and contributing some income to your household. That's a cultural change that isn't quite there yet.

So I would say two management challenges that help with that extra third that aren't getting a child support order, one is fix interstate processing so it's not so easy to escape by crossing state lines. Another is changing the culture of the social service system that helps low-income single parents, so that they realize the value of child support, the importance of having two incomes.

Ms. Morin: The second part of that equation was of those that are found, only two-thirds can you get the money from. So what causes the one-third to drop off? Is it because they don't have any income to collect or because they hide their money?

Dr. Heller: It's both. It's both. Some people try to get income in ways other than wages because wage attachment works so spectacularly well, and one by one we're starting to pick off those options. I told you about the bank match. That sometimes helps get money from bank accounts for people who don't have wages.

President Bush has on the table as part of this year's budget a new proposal that would allow us to intercept gambling winnings at casinos and other sorts of gambling establishments. So that's a way that people get money that we can't find on wage attachment, but under this proposal we'll be able to intercept their winnings.

There are sort of technical obstacles. So, for example, right now states are already authorized to intercept insurance settlements. Somebody wins a big insurance settlement and they owe some to their kids, and states are authorized to take that money and intercept it. But how do you find out whether somebody is about to get a good insurance payment? So we have a proposal on the table that if it's passed by the Congress next year, we will perform one of these matches like we do with banks with insurance companies. So every night we'll be looking for those insurance settlements. So part of the answer to how people evade paying once they have an order is they hide their income, and one by one they're picking those off.

I think though the suggestion you made is right on target, and it's sort of a relatively new insight to the child support community, that there are a lot of people out there who would pay if they could, and they can't. They don't have the job skills. They keep losing jobs. I'll give you an example of a specific case. Let's take the young person who had a child out of wedlock, got in trouble, goes to prison. He is in prison now. His child support debt is building up while he's in prison. He comes out and he owes $15- or $20,000 in child support, has a record, and has trouble even getting a minimum wage job.

What's going to happen there? What currently happens is that he sort of runs away, because if he shows up and makes himself visible, he's probably going to go to jail for child support evasion and he's right back where he started. At best he'll have his driver's license intercepted or his professional license taken to enforce child support, and that doesn't get us anywhere.

So more and more we are seeing states start to experiment, often with our funding, through grant programs that we run at the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Maryland has one of these. We recently gave a grant to the state of Maryland, and the state of Maryland is systematically experimenting with job training and job placement services for people coming out of prison and who don't have jobs. And even, and this is particularly interesting, I think, the leveraging of the debt. In other words, the young person who has $15- or $20,000 in debt but who participates in job training, keeps the job, makes his $80 or $100 a month payments regularly, actually can have part of the debt written down. It's just like any other kind of debt that you work out if you have a debt to a bank, the idea that our intent is not to lock up people, our intent is to get the money flowing to the family, not to pretend the debt doesn't exist, but to provide help for the person to manage the debt.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We have to go to a break. Rejoin us in a few minutes as we continue talking about management with Dr. Sherri Heller of HHS. What are the most effective techniques to collaborate between federal and state governments and between federal agencies? We'll ask Sherri for her insights when The Business of Government Hour returns.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Sherri Heller. Sherri is the Commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Joining us in our conversation is Therese Morin.

Ms. Morin: Sherri, you've indicated that there's a lot of need to coordinate with state and local offices. How does your office ensure that that communication and coordination is done in an effective manner?

Dr. Heller: Again, we rely a lot on communication - technology. But the technology is designed to make sure that people get fast, practical answers; so we have regular audio conferences, for example, where we have state officials from all over the country on the telephone, and they can just ask questions directly. We have a special communication tool that we call CSENET, Child Support Enforcement Network, which is a secure communication network, which you can't get in unless you're a child support official, and it's hard wired. It's not as though you just could steal somebody's password. You have to call in from a properly authorized facility, computer. They can exchange information with us on a regular basis, and frequently, and with everybody all at once, so a state official can just put out on the network, I had this kind of problem, has anybody ever had that problem before, how can we solve it.

A lot of the work we do at the federal office has to do with training. We do a lot of the training on these calls. We have web-based training so that a child support worker can just go onto our web page, ask the question, and the whole training manual comes right up. So we use technology that way, both through audio conference and telephone, and the CSENET, the e-mail kind of thing.

We also pass laws that help them communicate with each other. So, for example, a law has been passed that allows one state to send a wage attachment notice to an employer in another state. That was a breakthrough. That made it a lot harder for people to escape across state lines, because not only can we find them through the national directory of new hires, but we can attach their wages across state lines.

A lot of it comes down to persuasion and confidence-building and reassurance. One of the things I think is most fascinating about child support compared to nursing homes, jail administration, and all those other things I used to do, is that not only does this cross state, federal and county jurisdiction lines, but branches of government. In other words, we're working closely with the courts. It's a judge, after all, who decides how much this person owes this other person in support. So it's an interesting process of persuasion and confidence-building across state, federal and county lines, but also across executive, legislative, and judicial lines.

This summer we will be holding a symposium aimed at judges, and we'll get state supreme court judges and family court judges from all over the country together with child support professionals to compare notes and tell them success stories from people who have been experimenting. I told you in the prior segment, for example, we gave a grant to Maryland, and they're experimenting with helping low-income obligors work off some of their debt, if they're paying regularly.

Now here's the next step. How do you persuade a judge, a judge who might have to run for retention election, to let somebody wipe out part of his debt? Because no judge wants to run for retention or have to answer to the public on you were soft on a child support deadbeat or something. I say that in quotes or italics because that's how an individual judge might think of it.

So here's the way it works. We gave money to Maryland, Maryland tries this, Maryland gets some data that says this guy pays a lot more regularly to families if you do this. Now we go have a symposium for judges, and we show the data to them, and the judges get to ask the other judges from Maryland, "Didn't you have a lot of appeals? 'No, actually, we didn't.'"

So it's a process of putting out some money as an incentive to get somebody to experiment, measuring the results, the data, then making the results available to key decision makers in state and local government, and even across branches of government so that the confidence is there to try something new. That's sort of the tools when I said at the very beginning that we use both financial incentives and persuasion.

Mr. Lawrence: As you talked about working with the different levels of government, are the laws and the regulations aligned, or does that impose additional complexities because they each have different rules?

Dr. Heller: As you might imagine, there's not a simple answer to that question. We have it pretty much divided, and states control some things, and the federal government controls others. So, for example, the guidelines in each state that say how much you owe based on how much you make and how much the other parent makes, those are pretty much entirely within the state's control. The federal government requires states to review them every four years at least and to take into account economic data and certain other features. But decisions like do we take both parents' income into account or only the one who has to pay, those are entirely within state control. States decide whether interest is charged, states decide when a payment comes in whether it gets attributed to interest or the principal. All those things are within state control.

On the other hand, the federal government requires states to have certain laws in place. So, for example, the federal government requires states to take a social security number on every driver's license application and every hunting license and fishing license application. Our database doesn't work if we don't have those social security numbers to find people. So states have control over some things, some things they have to pass a state law, because they can't get federal funding to run the child support program, if they don't do it that way. So there's considerable variability.

A more complicated answer to your question, having different courts change what they do because of a court order somewhere else was one of the thorniest problems. It used to be, for example, he and she marry in California and divorce in California, and there's a child support order in place. Now she moves to Nevada, and he moves to Florida. She thinks maybe she can seek a new child support order and get more money because Nevada's guideline is higher than California's was. He says, "You don't have jurisdiction on me" and files for a modification in Florida because he has a lower income. What in the world happens? It was a mess.

Frankly, sometimes what happened is he would get a new order in Florida, and the California one would keep charging. He'd be paying $300 a month, not realizing that there was still $400 a month that he owed in California, and the federal statistics on how much money was owed were hyperinflated by this, because if California knew he was paying in Florida, they wouldn't still be charging an extra $400 a month. So all the scary headlines about how much was owed were too high.

So what happened is, there's a body of legal experts. The idea was that we would all agree on rules about which state would take jurisdiction, depending on the circumstance of the family. Then the Congress, in Washington, says all of you states have to pass laws consistent with what NCUSL recommended. So now all the states agree on who has jurisdiction and we don't have this double counting of orders anymore.

So it was complicated to do, but one of the things I love about child support - I keep bringing this up, I told you one was the crossing the different levels of government and branches of government - and another thing I like about child support is there's a source of optimism here. For people who get frustrated that government is too complicated and the federal officials blame it on the states, and the states blame it on the counties, and the judges blame it on the legislatures, here is a classic example of something that was, in fact, fixed. The courts came up with ideas of what was wrong in the conflicts between the laws, the Congress mandated that the state legislatures pass it, they did so that they could keep the federal money flowing for child support enforcement, and the problem is licked.

Child support is a source of great optimism I think. The doubling of the effectiveness of the program in 5 years, the very fact that this program, more than any other I've ever been associated with, we can measure the effectiveness of it. We can see the return on investment. It's extraordinary.

Ms. Morin: Lawrence: That is indeed amazing. What kind of support does your office provide states and localities to help them in their collection efforts?

Dr. Heller: In part I think we've been talking about some of those things. We talked about the training, we talked about the technology, many of the functions we actually do for them. So, for example, we intercept people's tax refunds at the federal level. We deny passports to people who are behind in their child support obligation. These are all effective tools that we do for the states.

When we seize the money, then we give it to the states to distribute properly to the families. I think it's a lot of technology. I suppose we shouldn't neglect the money. In fact, in excess of two-thirds of the money used to administer the child support program nationwide is child support money.

Ms. Morin: Are those issued in the form of grants?

Dr. Heller: There are some grants of the kind I described to you for the low-income person coming out of prison, but by far the largest amount of money is a straight reimbursement for expenditures the state makes. However many staff they hire, how many computers they buy, basically, for every dollar they put in, the federal government reimburses 66 percent, and that's a very unusual program in that sense. There are very few of what we call entitlements of that nature left anymore.

And perhaps more unusually - this is something I'm really proud of and is another reason that I think it's kind of thrilling to manage this program - the Federal Child Support Enforcement Program also has a huge incentive payment program for the states. We have very specific things that we measure about their performance such as how many paternities they established for out-of-wedlock births last year, the percentage of cases for which they get an order, the percentage of orders in which they get a collection, all those kinds of measures of success we've talked about. And the states are audited on the reliability of those data, so that we know that it's true when they report these numbers. I don't know of another program really that audits before it pays.

Then on the basis of how they do, we give out about $450 million a year in incentive money to the states, which they can then reinvest in the program. It's quite competitive, and it's having an impact. You can see the number of paternity establishments go up, and I actually see states working harder to help poorer people. So I can see that the incentive program is working. When I say in excess of two-thirds of the money is federal, I was throwing in a little grant money and $450 million in incentives in addition to the two-thirds reimbursement on what states spend.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We have to go to a break. Come back in a few minutes as we continue talking about management with Sherri Heller of HHS. This is The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Sherri Heller. Dr. Heller is the Commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Joining us in our conversation is Therese Morin.

Ms. Morin: Sherri, overall, how successful are federal, state, and local efforts at finding missing parents? We've talked about it in the previous segments, but in summary, how would you say?

Dr. Heller: Spectacularly improved, and not good enough. I think I said earlier that we've had a doubling of effectiveness in the last 5 years, literally a one hundred percent increase in the number of people who have asked for help and who actually get money in five years. That is an extraordinary improvement, and there are a lot of families out there that their lives are different because this money is coming in to them.

On the other hand, if you're somebody who's involved in, for example, an interstate case, where you're crossing state lines and the computers don't talk to each other, you're still frustrated. So there's a lot of work to be done. But I'm extremely optimistic. I think the listeners who are saying, yeah, well, this computer hasn't helped me any should be cheered, because we're determined, we're absolutely determined, that everybody is going to get help from this system.

Mr. Lawrence: You've talked about how government at all levels works together, but I'm curious in terms of working with other federal agencies, who they are and how you collaborate.

Dr. Heller: We have an extraordinary database that I described to you. We have employment data on wages for everybody in the country, not just child support obligors, and that data has turned out to be useful for people in other federal agencies. For example, the Social Security agency, they want to know if people are not reporting all the income they're receiving, they're getting social security benefits and they shouldn't be because they're also working and their records are messed up or they're misleading people. So we do a match on a regular basis with the Social Security Administration. Last year, the Social Security Administration recovered $371 million from people who were getting social security benefits that they weren't entitled to because they were making more money, and we had the jobs on our database.

I'll give you one other example. The Department of Education gives out student loans, and sometimes they're not getting those student loans repaid because people are saying that they don't have income, or they're misleading about what student loans they qualify for. Last year through our matches with the Federal Department of Education Loan Office, that department recovered $726 million in loan funding that shouldn't have been out there. So between those two matches that we do with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Education, that's about a billion dollars of taxpayer money saved.

I do want to reassure the listeners, because we have this intrusive database, that we just don't match with anybody. We just don't let anybody have access to this data who might want to browse it. We have a lot of security protocols about who can it and how it's done, and you can't browse the data anyway. Even these agencies, the Social Security Administration and Education, they tell us the identifying information and we give them back only the relevant income information for that purpose. But every time a new agency proposes to use our database, it has to be authorized by the United States Congress. It's not a decision we make lightly.

Ms. Morin: What are some of the major management challenges that you see looming on the horizon?

Dr. Heller: One that's on my plate right now that I'm working on is a relatively recent phenomenon called undistributed collections. What's happening now that we can find all these people is we're getting these huge amounts of money in, and sometimes we can't then figure out who should get it. So, for example, if an employer used to send a check to Montgomery County, a check to Prince George's County, and a check to Calvert County for three different employees, that they took the child support out of each of those guys' wages, now they pile up hundreds of employees' wages and send one electronic payment to one child support office in Annapolis. Easy, right - easy for the employer? All this money is coming in, it's all done electronically, except what if the employer left a name off the list?

So now we have a check for $156,000 and 26 names, and we ought to have 27, and we can't figure out who gets how much money. That money builds up a little, so nationwide we have quite a bit of undistributed collections, money we've actually brought in, and now we're having trouble finding the people who it goes to, or figuring out who gets how much.

So a very current management challenge that I'm working on right now is getting that undistributed collections number down by finding the people who should get that money and getting it to them fast.

Ms. Morin: A follow-up question is where do you see your office in 5 to 10 years?

Dr. Heller: I have two approaches to answering that question, what's going to happen really in our office, and then what's going to happen in the larger cultural world, the context in which child support operates.

For us in the child support community, I mentioned that we'll probably concentrate much more on non-wage earners, for example, by intercepting gambling winnings and seizing bank accounts and so forth. I think we will make a lot subtler distinctions between, for example, people who ought to be prosecuted because they quit jobs and crossed state lines and are evading their responsibilities to their children, and people who are low income and want to be involved with their families and would earn money and pay it to their kids if they could. So I think we're learning to make subtler distinctions rather than enforce against everybody the exact same way. That's really the cultural change that's going on in our office.

In the larger world, the general public and our view of child support, I think a couple of changes are going to be happening in the next 5 years. One is a big culture change, that kids need two parents. Kids need two parents. It's not just a question of getting money anymore. Depending on welfare or other kinds of government subsidies as an alternative to having two parents' income ain't going to cut it.

And even if I might go so far as to make an analogy to what happened in the drug and alcohol field, that's another thing I used to do, manage a drug and alcohol program years ago. I remember about 20 years ago we were treating a lot of addicted people, and people finally got around to saying if we could just stop them from coming in the door, it's more than we can handle, why don't we start to teach kids to say no to drugs? Why don't we start to stop the problem? The treatment professionals were saying, "I don't know, I don't know, if they take treatment money away to do prevention work," but that's not what happened. We figured out a way to have a prevention program and an addiction treatment program.

I think probably something like that will happen in child support. People will learn that divorce isn't good for kids, people will learn that having children out of wedlock is hard, you just can't get your own apartment and depend on child support or a welfare subsidy, and we will start to see the fact that you can't escape. If you're the absent parent, you can't escape your financial obligation, because we will find you. If you're the parent raising the child, you can't escape the person you made a baby with, because you're going to have to deal with child support.

Ultimately, I think people are going to have children in wedlock and stay married more for a variety of reasons, mostly because they find out it's good for kids. I think that's going to be a big cultural breakthrough.

I do think in the larger world of technology, I spend a lot of time with technology companies, for obvious reasons, I think when the history of the Internet is written, when the history of computers is written and people say who figured out the correct balance between data sharing and privacy, security of data, and making good use of really extensive databases, it won't be, it will be the child support program. When you think about the database we have now and what we do with it and how we secure it, we're on the cutting edge. That's an odd kind of thing I would predict, in the next 5 years, whereas you usually have government trotting along after and copying what happened in the business world, in terms of technology, now you're going to have technology companies figuring out how this government program exploited the data so cleverly, without getting in trouble on privacy and security grounds.

Mr. Lawrence: You've had such a diverse career at so many different levels of government. I'm curious, what advice would you give to a person interested in a career in government service?

Dr. Heller: My basic advice is: get in, start, get in however you can. Don't wait for the ideal job. If you think you want to be an economist, don't look for necessarily an economics job. Get a research assistant's job; get a database job. Get in and start. Once you are in government, you'll get a lot more realistic about where you belong, and it's a lot easier to move around once you've started.

The other thing I would say, it's a good time to get involved in public service. It's the best time in my twenty-plus years. There is more optimism, less cynicism, more hope, for the effectiveness of public servants than at any time I can remember. So it's a great time to get in, both because people want you to succeed, and because once you've started and you figure out how it really works - that it's about financial incentives and not about politics; that it's about protecting privacy and not political turf battles - I think that you become less cynical, not more cynical, once you've been in a career in public service and see how it really works.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good ending point. I'm afraid we're out of time, Sherri. Therese and I want to thank you for being with us this morning.

Dr. Heller: It's my pleasure. I've enjoyed it.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with Dr. Sherri Heller. Sherri is the Commissioner of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Be sure and visit us on the web at There you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's very interesting conversation. Again, that's This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Sherri Heller interview
Dr. Sherri Heller

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