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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, April 11, 2005

Tech glitches plague child-support agency

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Every two or three years since 1992, auditors who have examined the books and procedures of the state Child Support Enforcement Agency have reached the same bleak conclusion: the agency is badly managed and provides poor service to the children of Hawai'i.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett, whose office oversees the agency, and agency executive director Arnold Enoki said last week that they have made improvements a top priority, focusing on two long-running problems that have plagued the agency and caused most of its customer complaints: a computer system and the phones.

The computer system, called KEIKI, has cost more than $50 million to design, operate and fix since planning for it began in 1992, according to state records.

When it went into service in 1998, near chaos engulfed the agency after numerous computer glitches caused late support payments, incorrect payment amounts and long delays in addressing complaints about the new system.

At the peak of the problems, "fewer than three in every 100 people could get through to customer-service representatives on the phones, and offices had standing-room-only crowds and service delays that stretched for hours," the state auditor's office noted in a 2003 report.

Those problems created a perception among families served by the agency that "the agency is indifferent to their problems," the auditors noted.

What Experts say would help

1. More child-support enforcement staff. No new caseworkers have been hired in six years.

2. Improvements to the computer system. The system, called KEIKI, is overloaded at times and slows or blocks access to data.

3. Improvements to telephone system. Public contact via telephone is slow and frustrating.

4. Better staff training on computer use and customer service.

5. Improved Web site. This would lessen workload on staff, ease public frustrations and reduce hostile atmosphere at Child Support Enforcement Agency offices. House Finance Chairman Dwight Takamine: 586-6200

Things are much better with the KEIKI system now, but there are still serious problems, according to auditors.

The system is offline — unavailable for use by agency staffers — "from 25 to 30 hours per month during business hours," the 2003 report said. That means the computer can't be used during 15 percent to 17 percent of each working day, on average. At other businesses and government agencies, that same statistic is 1 percent, auditors reported.

About half of the downtime is because of "the extensive processing requirements for system backups, month-end processing and certain management reports," the audit found.

Much of the computer's downtime occurs around the first of each month, at the same time the computer is supposed to handle a large number of support payments that federal law says must be processed and disbursed within 48 hours.

And when the system is down, "customer-service representatives are unable to pull up case status and history while customers wait at walk-up windows or on the telephone," the audit said.

One caseworker, who asked not to be named because of management instructions not to talk to reporters, said computer problems "have gotten better in the last year or so, but it's still a big problem."

On the first or second working day of each month, agency offices still post signs telling the public that the computer system is down and their information is unavailable, the worker said.

Enoki acknowledged that those signs are still a necessity but he said the agency has two consulting contracts, worth a total of $3.5 million, to improve the KEIKI system. The attorney general's office told the Legislature this year that the work will expedite processing time.

Enoki said last week the work is "on track" but is about "two to three months behind schedule."

One Leeward O'ahu mother, who asked that her name be withheld to avoid embarrassment to her son, said visiting the Child Support Enforcement Agency offices in Kapolei "is terrible."

"It seems like the computers are always broken or not working," she said. "If you talk to three different people there, you get three different answers to your questions. And if you go, go early, because otherwise you'll wait forever."

Walk-in visits to the agency, as well as telephone customer service, take place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays.

"The relatively limited agency hours are inconvenient for parents who must work and add to frustrations regarding agency accessibility," the 2003 state audit observed.

Long waits on hold

Whom to call

Senate Human Services Chairwoman Suzanne Chun Oakland: 586-6130

House Human Services Chairman Alex Sonson: 586-6520

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Brian Taniguchi: 586-6460

House Finance Chairman Dwight Takamine: 586-6200

Getting through to a customer-service representative on the telephone can be a time-consuming process.

The attorney general's office told legislators this year that an agency "customer call center with dedicated customer-service representatives would serve to increase the agency's call response rate and greatly improve customer satisfaction."

Right now, "calls are answered when caseworkers have completed their primary tasks and are available to be assigned to the telephones," the agency said. "This process limits the number of workers assigned to answering calls, leaving customers to hold for longer periods of time."

In six calls placed to the agency's main telephone number Friday morning seeking contact with a customer representative, five ended with a message that all lines were busy and the last was forwarded to a waiting queue with a wait time predicted to be 3 1/2 minutes.

The agency said it is receiving 35,000 calls per month through its main automated voice-response system. Many of those calls involve frequently asked questions which the system is able to answer, but "13,000 customers request to speak to an agency representative directly" and the system can only accommodate about 75 percent of those calls, the agency told lawmakers.

That means 3,150 callers per month can't get through to the Child Support Enforcement Agency.

Those numbers increase public frustration and result in high stress for the staff once a customer gets through.

As auditors noted in 2003, "Nearly every agency staff member, supervisor and executive involved with customer service whom we interviewed mentioned the extensive amount of anger and wrath they receive from customers on a daily basis."

One staffer told auditors that in one branch office, "eight of 12 staff members have stress-related medical excuses exempting them from performing direct customer-service tasks." With fewer staff members available for those tasks, staff morale sinks and customer service deteriorates, the audit said.

Looking for solutions

A Web site allowing customers to access agency account information and download forms and instructions is under development. It is scheduled to go online by October.

Marita Somerville

Marita Somerville is a partner in a Maui company called Family Matters, which assists parents in navigating the child-support system.

"The agency is understaffed, employees are overworked, and they make mistakes," Somerville said. "The administration says that improving customer service is a priority, but I have seen no evidence of it.

"On Maui, when you sit in the waiting room at CSEA, you can hear everything being said in the rooms where families are meeting with caseworkers. Intimate family secrets, financial matters, things like that can all be overheard.

"That's insensitive to the customers, to put them in a situation like that."

Attorney General Bennett said two cubicles for regular customer support are within earshot of the waiting room "if people are talking loudly." The only way to fix the situation "would be to physically enclose the cubicles, which would require more leased space and new construction."

The agency caseworker who spoke anonymously said that the "vast majority of staffers here are trying their best to do good, but it's an uphill battle."

Bennett said he is "proud of our CSEA employees, especially given the limited resources with which CSEA has to work, and the extraordinarily difficult work that the agency does."

Reach Jim Dooley at 535-2447 or jdooley@honoluluadvertiser.com.