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 Stacey Monahan, Massachusetts’ commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance from 2013 to 2015, thought differently.
In just a matter of months, she led the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) through a bleak period for a transformation culminating in the state’s first worker assignment model for SNAP-only (food stamp) 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 — Nov. 17 to 21 and 24 to 28 — DTA delivered services to approximately 350,000 clients, handled nearly 70,000 call center calls, and had nearly 10,000 clients use the enhanced interactive voice response (IVR) system. Over that same time period, average wait time for the call queue fell from 3 minutes, 39 seconds to 1:38.
Monahan’s straightforward approach empowered staff, rallied stakeholders and delivered outcomes for working families, children and seniors and people with disabilities across the Commonwealth.
“We had lost both the public’s and the legislators’ confidence,” Monahan said. “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: An Agency with Challenges
DTA provides food and nutritional assistance, cash assistance and employment supports for 1 in 8 people living in Massachusetts. 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 many other public benefit agencies, DTA faced a number of connected challenges, from rising caseloads and resource shortages to antiquated systems and citizen demands for improved service delivery. What’s more, the aftermath of USDA performance sanctions and negative media coverage had affected the agency’s image and the public trust.
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.
“I drew on my background in politics to get things moving,” Monahan said. “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.”
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 the established approach of assigning one worker per case, 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 only food stamp 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. Several guiding principles shaped the successful October 2014 launch:
•Clear executive stewardship. The executive commitment to successful change was unwavering.
•Complete emphasis on accountability. Stronger monitoring and controls supported earlier and easier course corrections as necessary.
•Creation of a wide circle of support. It was important to listen to and connect with all constituencies impacted by the change.
•Investment in the right technology. IT enhancements, such as expanded IVR and centralized correspondence and tracking tools, were implemented.
•Continuous communication. Clear internal and external communications were a priority at every phase of the implementation.
Adaptive Leadership in Action
The success of the transformation in Massachusetts reflects a strong collaboration from many stakeholders around a commitment to win back public confidence for DTA.
Monahan’s approach showed that leadership doesn’t always require sophisticated techniques to be effective. Her pragmatic, hands-on approach offered several important leadership lessons for the human services community:
1. People: Get to know them, they are your greatest assets
Good leaders are never isolationists, and Monahan certainly was not. From the earliest days as commissioner, she spent a lot of time with staff, which included a listening tour of all 22 offices. Monahan wanted to ensure that caseworkers’ authentic voices and frontline experiences informed the solutions that would be pursued. She found caseworkers overburdened by work and hungry for new approaches that would make them more effective in their jobs.
“I have a sense of pride in my team and people that work for this agency and how dedicated they are,” Monahan said. “This is consistent across human services. None of this happens without them. I have thrown a lot at people over these months — information, policy and procedure changes.”
Monahan did not stop connecting with staff after soliciting their feedback. She made change management and training top priorities so that staff members had the tools necessary to work differently. Monahan brought a trainer to each office to discuss the “soft skills” side of the business process redesign. And after program implementation, she went on a gratitude tour of the local offices to build staff relationships and provide opportunities for direct feedback.
“I know how difficult working through change can be,” she added. “I am amazed at how well people have done. It has been awe inspiring to see people bringing their best selves to work every day under difficult circumstances. I am proud to be their commissioner.”
2. Communication: At the end of the day, it’s about making connections
Staff members were not the only people who Monahan connected with during the transformation. She successfully engaged multiple constituencies, including the general public, the employee union, legislators, advocates, welfare rights organizations and the media.
“We hosted 30 listening sessions after hours. We hosted some with members of the legislature and some ourselves. We took public testimony, summarized what we heard and answered questions during these forums,” Monahan said. “These sessions were very successful — more than 500 people attended — and the local media coverage was positive. These are things that we did right away to let everyone know that we are here and that we are launching something new and better.”
An open communications style was key for strengthening union and legislative relations. Monahan worked over nine months to gain the support of the union, which was previously skeptical of the first worker assignment model. She established credibility with the legislature by implementing a new law well ahead of schedule and under budget. She partnered with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to upload photos to EBT cards. Monahan reached out to citizens in new ways too, holding client recognition events to celebrate people’s steps toward self-sufficiency.
Monahan’s consensus-building communication style was rooted in her political skills. It is a good reminder that successful public administration requires a blend of program knowledge, management skills and political savvy, a combination that is often hard to come by.
3. Accountability: People may resist it, but they hunger for it
One of the reasons that all of these stakeholders were willing to align with Monahan was because she held herself and her staff accountable to timelines, processes and promises. For example, the leadership team acted fast to develop a 100-day action plan and completed all 20 initiatives ahead of schedule. Daily morning meetings were established to triage problems. Over time as the crisis mode abated, these meetings became effective forums for proactive planning.
Monahan also worked to foster a much-needed culture of accountability across DTA. An emphasis on data integrity and investments in rebuilding the data warehouse and creating data dashboards helped staff get a data-driven view of the work they were doing.
“Accountability was not there at first, and I knew that had to change,” she said. “People are more successful — they feel better and their work life is more manageable — when they know what’s expected of them. It’s a way to create order in disordered times.”
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Monahan forced herself to ignore that inclination and approach the phases of the roll out as a realist.
“I have a high bar for perfection,” she said. “One of my mentors taught me that you can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, and that’s been a life-changing philosophy for me. I believe in moving things forward until we get them right, and that some of the best improvements come when you create a test-and-learn environment.”
While the launch of the first worker assignment model was a success, it was also not an end-game; DTA is continuing to review and enhance systems and solutions.
DTA Turns the Corner
A moment of clarity stands out for former Commissioner Monahan amid the challenges and change. It’s a moment when she knew that the agency was making the progress she’d envisioned when she arrived.
About a year into her time at DTA, Monahan gave a presentation to the legislature reporting on the agency’s accomplishments to date. The legislators had no questions, but their silence told her all that she needed to know. DTA had turned the corner.
Monahan helped bring more change to DTA than it experienced in decades. While there are few absolutes when it comes to leadership, the Massachusetts experience over the past two years shows how an honest and energized approach that empowers program staff with quality standards, accountability and communicates a vision effectively at all levels can bring fast and positive results.
By Matthew Burnham, public service strategy executive, Accenture, with insight from Stacey Monahan, former commissioner (Feb. 2013-Jan. 2015), Department of Transitional Assistance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A version of this article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of Policy & Practice, the journal of the American Public Human Services Association.