Systems change meets welfare reform

In the mid-1990s, officials from Hennepin County, Minn., realized welfare

reform was imminent and that they had better do something or else things

could get worse for their clients. At the time, it was already a bureaucratic

challenge to wean clients off public assistance. But new, stricter federal

guidelines limiting public assistance to five years would make the job harder

and more complicated for clients.

With caseworkers spread over different agencies handling various duties,

client files sometimes were lost or information was never updated. Communication

between financial and job caseworkers was fragmented. If clients needed

child care assistance or health insurance, then that would involve several

more caseworkers and more paperwork.

"The burden was on the client and also on the client's employer to be

on top of the paperwork," said Chris Lancrete, principal planning analyst

for the county's Economic Assistance department. "It was a routine occurrence

that clients would have to make up for the communication shortage within

our county. Some clients would go to that effort. Other clients would not

and wind up with gaps."

He said it was an "onerous task" to find the inches-thick files that

were kept on different floors or with different caseworkers. "In the past,

we had problems with losing entire files," he added. "We knew with welfare

[reform] coming, that really wasn't going to fly."

More than 190,000 individuals participate in programs such as food stamps,

medical assistance and child support collection that are administered by

the county's Economic Assistance Department.

The department turned to FileNet Corp. USA, which had already implemented

management software for the county Recorder's Office. In 1996, the Economic

Assistance Department's 30 caseworkers participated in a six-month pilot

program. Incoming mail was scanned and delivered online. A component was

built for outgoing correspondence to clients. Instead of filling each of

the 200 forms by hand, caseworkers could call up form templates, previously

filled with recurring information.

The pilot program was extended another six months so network capabilities

could be assessed for scaling the client/server system for more users and

migrating to newer toolsets. Incoming content — bar-coded forms, personnel

documents, applications and faxes — was captured electronically, automatically

routed to caseworkers and stored in a central repository.

Now, everything is scanned in the central mailroom the day it is received

and goes into a central database, Lancrete said. Each client has a single

electronic folder organized by document type, case number and client name.

Previously, Lancrete said caseworkers may or may not have been informed

about a particular development with a client.

Each system user also has a security clearance depending on his or her

job function. The system can be tailored so that only certain caseworkers

can see certain records. Workers also can access content simultaneously.

About 500 to 600 people now use the system, Lancrete said, adding that

a significant culture change accompanied the transformation.

"Just letting go of paper is a difficult thing," he said. "And prior

to implementing the system, our caseworkers did data entry to a green screen.

This involved getting our staff using PCs and using Microsoft Windows 95."

But the "big shift" was in the ownership of a case file. "In the past,

a case, to a large degree, was controlled by a financial worker," Lancrete

said. "They would have their own organization method, for good or for bad

— some were reluctant to collaborate."

In reorganizing its business processes, the department is creating a

team concept where two to three caseworkers handle one case. "This would've

been extremely difficult to do under a paper case-filing system," he said.

But the electronic system supports a team environment, he added.

The department offers access to its system to officials from other county

departments through a thin client, or a client that does very little data

processing. The department is also exploring providing access to others

— such as business partners, contractual providers and state officials

— beyond the county's firewall via a thin client application or a private

virtual network, which can be centrally managed and controlled.

The department also is developing a feature to keep track of document

deadlines for clients. If a client misses a deadline, then the application

would notify the relevant caseworkers so they could take the appropriate

action necessary. "What's been happening to date is they're keeping manual

lists of clients," Lancrete said.

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