Magazine article Policy & Practice

18 Months in Massachusetts: A Story of Adaptive Leadership Success against the Odds

Magazine article Policy & Practice

18 Months in Massachusetts: A Story of Adaptive Leadership Success against the Odds

Article excerpt

Few of us can resist a story of triumph against the odds--this is that kind of story. It's one that the skeptics thought could never happen.

But Commissioner Stacey Monahan thought differently.

In just a matter of months, Monahan led the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) from a very bleak period to one of enthusiastic transformation, culminating in the transition to a first worker assignment model for SNAP-only cases, supported by electronic document management and a centralized contact number. Early feedback points to faster application turnaround times, an increase in customer service, less stressed workers, happier clients, and reduced foot traffic in local offices.

This initiative was completed on time, and early statistics reveal its effectiveness. Over two weeks in 2014--November 17 to 21 and 24 to 28--DTA delivered approximately 350,000 client services, handled nearly 70,000 call center inquiries, and had nearly 10,000 clients use the enhanced interactive voice response (IVR) system. During that same time period, the average wait time for the call queue decreased from 3:39 minutes the first week to 1:38 (minutes: seconds) the following week.

Monahan's straightforward, genuine approach has empowered staff, rallied stakeholders, and delivered outcomes for working families, children, and seniors, and for people with disabilities across the commonwealth.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

Stacey Monahan: We had lost both the public's and the legislators' confidence. We didn't have policy problems. We had public perception problems. I didn't want our people to feel like they were under attack. I wanted them to feel supported.

DTA is an agency with a clear mission. It provides food and nutritional assistance, cash assistance, and employment supports for one in eight people living in Massachusetts.

With most of her career as a political advisor and only a brief period as chief of staff of the commonwealth's Executive Office of Health and Human Services on her resume, Monahan was named interim DTA commissioner in February 2013. With a short tenure and minimal exposure to public welfare administration, Monahan took over an agency in crisis.

Like other public benefit agencies, DTA faced a perfect storm of challenges--from rising caseloads and resource shortages to antiquated systems and citizen demands for improved service delivery. What's more, the aftermath of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) performance sanctions and negative media had damaged the agency's image and the public trust. The status quo had to change--and fast.

WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY

SM: I drew on my background in politics to get things moving. You do a lot of work and problem solving on the fly in the campaign world. I knew that we had to act fast to let people know that we cared, we were listening, and that things were going to change.

Monahan and her staff recognized the sense of urgency to drive change in an environment where everyone was watching every move they made. They needed a better way to balance the reality of an increased workload with limited resources. How would they decide to play the hand that had been dealt to them?

Focusing on improving the efficiency of benefit delivery, they explored other states' transitions to "first worker" assignment models for transactional or "low-touch" cases. Rather than assign one worker per case like traditional work methods, this approach assigns any available and trained worker to any case to complete case processing tasks.

One of the major concerns with a process management approach is distinguishing between high-touch and low-touch cases based on critical need. DTA made the decision to deploy a first worker assignment model for food stamp-only applications. This separation created a natural case segmentation from Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility, which implies deeper poverty and a need for additional services best addressed with caseworker assignment. …

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