Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Coordination and Welfare Reform: The Quest for the Philosopher's Stone

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Coordination and Welfare Reform: The Quest for the Philosopher's Stone

Article excerpt

In ancient times alchemists believed implicitly in the existence of a philosopher's tone, which would provide the key to the universe and, in effect, solve all of the problem of mankind. The quest for coordination is in many respects the twentieth-century equivalent of the medieval search for the philosopher's stone. If only we can find the right formula for coordination, we can reconcile the irreconcilable, harmonize competing and wholly divergent interests, overcome irrationalities in our government structures, and make hard policy choices to which no one will dissent.

In an attempt to reform Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the major intergovernmental program providing public assistance to the poor in the United States, Congress approved the Family Support Act (FSA) in 1988 (PL. 100-485). This act included the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program, which established a new set of employment and training services targeted at AFDC recipients.(1) JOBS, which became operational in October 1990, has been initiated in a complex organizational and policy environment composed of pre-existing programs that are open to the same target group. The involvement of multiple state, local, and other organizations is characteristic of this new program, as it was of some of the pre-existing programs. In recognition of the multiple possible linkages, the Family Support Act imposes several requirements intended to foster the coordination of services delivered by the different agencies and organizations to JOBS participants.

The multiagency, multiprogram framework and the welfare reform legislation mandates for coordination raise questions about how effectively the JOBS program can be administered. Although state welfare departments are designated as the lead agencies, cooperation of other public agencies is required. Activities of the state agencies need to be linked to not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. Success of the welfare reform effort might well turn on the degree to which the diverse organizations and programs integrate their efforts.

That coordination was already a problem in the social service arena can hardly be questioned. The categorized, fragmented nature of the welfare system has seriously constrained effective delivery of human services, as several national commissions noted in 1991 (National Commission for Employment Policy, 1991; National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, 1991; National Commission on Children, 1991). We know, however, that coordination is hard to achieve. Seidman (1970) has called coordination the "philosopher's stone"' of public administration, suggesting that it is an illusive, magical ingredient that will transform flawed systems of administration. Agranoff's (1991) recent review of service integration efforts of the past 20 years indicates that coordination continues to be extraordinarily difficult to attain in the mosaic of American social services. Thus we ask: What practices have managers used to blend together the essential ingredients of the JOBS program? Have the wizards of the social service organizations overcome their specialized concerns and been able to amalgamate the diverse elements into a functioning system? What barriers to coordination fell to their magic or resisted their alchemy? The answers to these questions will tell us something about the potential for the long-term success of JOBS and similar programs. They will also tell us about factors that shape the success of intergovernmental program implementation and interorganizational policy activity.

The Barriers to Coordination

Previous research suggests that coordination barriers are of several types: organizational, legal/technical, and political. Organizational barriers are rooted in the differing missions, professional orientations, structures, and processes of the agencies. Mission defines an organization's purposes, and differences in mission can lead to conflicts over goals, directions, and activities. …

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