Systems change meets welfare reform
- By Dibya Sarkar
- May 16, 2002
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.