Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Deploying Needed Facilities, Equipment, Infrastructure, and Systems


For tribal TANF operations to run smoothly, adequate office space, equipment, and computing and communications systems are critical. One respondent, noting the importance of adequate facilities to TANF operations, stated simply, "No place, no space, no services." Tribes sometimes find it difficult to create or allocate appropriate office space on the reservation for a TANF program. Space is needed for a waiting area, private interview rooms, staff offices, and meetings between businesses and prospective workers on the reservation. Although some reservations have empty buildings, the cost of converting them is often prohibitive. The Navajo Nation developed an innovative approach to financing the renovation of existing buildings and stimulating economic development at the same time. In addition to renovating office space in tribally-owned facilities, the tribe worked with a construction company owned by a tribal member to secure financing from a bank using leases from the tribe as collateral for a loan to finance the needed renovations. Using the loan funds, the construction company renovated a large, empty facility in the Shiprock community providing facilities for a fast food restaurant and other businesses as well as a satellite office for the TANF program.

Three grantees had difficulty securing enough space to manage a caseload that exceeded their enrollment projections. For example, the small Lac du Flambeau tribe needed to procure and deploy modular office facilities after enrolling more than twice the number of families it expected in its TANF program. When the study data were collected, the Lac du Flambeau TANF program was serving, on average, 50 families per month (rather than the 20 families anticipated in its TANF plan). Even at this small scale, enrollment beyond projection can be disruptive. Initially, the TANF program had been sharing office space with other tribal programs; however, as implementation of the program proceeded and the number of tribal members enrolled in TANF grew, the TANF program needed additional space to avoid disrupting other tribal programs. Since the building housing the TANF office had no more space to offer, the tribe deployed modular office facilities adjacent to the existing building.

Tribes find the lack of adequate computing/telecommunications systems particularly challenging. Much of Indian country lacks access to high-speed, high bandwidth landlines such as T-1, DSL, or ISDN. Often, cellular communication is unavailable on some, or all, of the reservation. The Navajo Nation has deployed a TANF information system using satellite-based telecommunications. Despite spending more than $1 million on this system, the Nation has encountered major problems. These include interfacing its system with that of the Wells Fargo Bank, which had been contracted to make cash payments to program participants through debit card accounts. The Torres Martinez tribal TANF program established a technology department and was building a network to serve its TANF program. The program plans to implement computer-assisted intake and related services at each TANF office in the two counties served (Los Angeles and Riverside) with program-wide data processed and stored at a central site. In order to increase the utility and value of the system, the consortium planned to make the system available to all tribal members and other tribal programs that wish to provide Internet access to computer-assisted training and education.

Because of limitations in their own information systems capacity and equipment, several tribes contracted with the states to operate tribal TANF information systems or obtained permission to use the state system on a permanent or transitional basis. These systems are used to record information on participants at enrollment through job placement and follow-up, including tracking participation in program activities, computing benefit amounts, and reporting to DHHS. Wisconsin has encouraged the Lac du Flambeau and Red Cliff, and Minnesota has encouraged the Mille Lacs, to use their state TANF information systems. These states have provided hardware at no cost or at a reduced cost, as well as software, technical assistance, and training in use of the state TANF information system. Two other grantees in the study used state TANF information systems  the Hopi and White Mountain Apache tribes subcontracted substantial portions of their TANF program to the state of Arizona and used its TANF information system.

Using state TANF information systems rather than developing their own can yield significant savings and efficiencies for tribal TANF programs, but the grantees in the study that did so experienced problems, particularly with respect to making required quarterly reports to DHHS. While the data elements and reporting format are similar for state and tribal TANF programs, tribal programs are not required to report some elements required of state programs (such as MOE, separate state programs), and some codes used by states (pertaining, for example, to waivers) are not used by tribal programs. Tribal grantees that used state TANF information systems (Lac du Flambeau, Red Cliff, and Mille Lacs) reported that the state system could not produce reports required by DHHS. Mille Lacs said that use of the state system facilitated their administration of Medicaid and Food Stamps (operated by contract with the state and a waiver from DHHS). Some tribal grantees that do not use state systems (Port Gamble, Navajo, and Torres Martinez) said that they developed their own information systems because, in their judgment, the state system could not meet their needs.

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