Privatization in Practice: Case Studies of Contracting for TANF Case Management. Strategies to Facilitate Coordination


Administrators and line staff across the sites identified a range of practices that promote coordination between public agency and private contractor staff. These include cross-training, regular meetings and staff interactions, shared access to data systems, and colocation.

Cross-Training. Line staff at both the contracted providers and public agencies reported finding it useful to learn  formally or informally  about their counterparts functions. In Delaware and San Diego County, welfare agency staff who visited contractor offices reported that it was useful to learn in detail about the staff roles and services offered. Learning about the responsibilities of welfare agency staff and the mechanics of their work seemed to be equally valuable for contractor staff. Cross-training should occur on an ongoing basis to respond to staff turnover and keep staff abreast of policy or procedure changes.

Staff movement from the public agencies to the private contractors enables this cross-training and facilitates coordination. The public agency staff who join contractor organizations typically become resources for information about the services and operations of the welfare agency. However, public agencies should guard against private contractors "poaching" trained workers. In Palm Beach County, the contractor pays for its own workers to be trained by the public agency in TANF eligibility determination but has also hired public agency staff who have just completed their training.

Regular Meetings and Other Staff Interactions. In each of the study sites, senior managers and administrators from the private contractors meet regularly with public agency staff. In several sites, such interactions are formal requirements of the providers contracts. Typically, manager meetings happen monthly or more frequently.

Respondents across all the study sites agreed that regular and ongoing interactions among the upper-level managers of the private and public agencies are important in setting the tone and example for collaboration. Reported perceptions of the overall usefulness of upper-management meetings varied, nevertheless, depending on their structure and focus. Respondents felt that regular meetings were most valuable when their objective was not only to share program updates and developments, but also to resolve problems. In Wisconsin, each of the states TANF regions has a community steering committee that meets quarterly. The committees are intended to help the contracting agencies identify resources to aid clients. They typically include community businesspeople, advocates, and other interested parties. Contractor staff in Milwaukee felt that advocates more interested in changing policies than dealing with day-to-day management challenges sometimes dominated the committee meetings.

Regular meetings or other interactions among lower-level management and line staff from public and private agencies do occur, but are not required in any of the study sites. In San Diego County, for example, coordination between provider and welfare agency case workers varies by contractor and region. Liaisons for Catholic Charities and county case workers visit each others offices weekly, and collaborative meetings occur every other month. Neither ACS nor MAXIMUS case workers have regular meetings with their public agency counterparts. MAXIMUS respondents indicated that coordination happens easily and informally, as they are housed in the same building as the public agency.

When interactions among line staff or lower-level managers happen regularly, welfare agency and contractor staff members find them to be useful. In San Diego County, employment case workers noted that joint "case staffings" on clients who were not engaged in work activities or were about to be sanctioned helped staff share information on child care, domestic abuse, child protection, and other issues to determine the best course of action. Similarly, public agency caseworkers reported that periodic visits by contractor liaisons facilitate the resolution of issues and enabled critical information sharing.

Organizations in some study sites designate liaisons to facilitate coordination. Doing so seems to be important, especially in sites where the relationship between public agency and contractor staff is more adversarial. In Palm Beach County, a mid-level manager in the state agency has been assigned to serve as a liaison to ACS, to help its staff get up to speed on TANF eligibility rules and other agency procedures. The liaison spends a substantial amount of time troubleshooting issues and providing technical assistance on the shared data system. ACS management and staff considered this assistance extremely useful. Hennepin County created a special coordination office, staffed by public agency employees, to run the "client choice" system and help contractor and agency staff work together.

Shared Access to Data Systems. Contractor staff in all study sites have at least limited viewing privileges to the data systems used by their public agency counterparts. In most sites, contractors access to data systems is notably more extensive. In Delaware, Palm Beach County, and Wisconsin, for example, contractor and public agency staff use the same data system for eligibility determinations and ongoing case management. In Lower Rio Grande Valley, the data systems used by contractor and public agency staff share information on a daily basis.

Shared access to information systems facilitates coordination among private and public agency staff in a number of ways. In San Diego County, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Delaware, welfare agency staff can electronically refer clients to employment service providers. Shared access to data systems also facilitates the resolution of problems, making it possible for contractor and public agency staff to collect information from or identify discrepancies in their counterparts systems. In Delaware, private and public case workers can even share case notes via the computer system.

Shared access to data systems is not without challenges, however. The type and extent of access granted to contractor staff does not always meet their needs.

  • Contractor staff in Hennepin County have view-only access to a limited set of data in the MIS. Contractor staff noted that the information on clients hours of employment is often outdated, and they do not have the access to be able to update it. Yet this information is needed by contractors to accurately report their progress in meeting their performance standards.
  • In Wisconsin, public agency and contractor staff use the same data system. Both staff complained that the system was designed for one worker with full responsibility for all services, and thus is cumbersome for two workers to use.
  • In San Diego County, clients sometimes show up as work-mandatory in the contractors but not the public agencys data system (or vice versa). Such discrepancies are reconciled manually. Public agency and contractor staff noted that this time-consuming process hinders their availability to work directly with clients.
  • State staff in Palm Beach County complained that every time contractor staff updates information on one part of an electronic case file, they have to manually update client information in other parts of the file.

Information also needs to be shared about policy or procedural changes that occur at either the public or private agency. This does not always happen, however. Both public and private agency staff in Lower Rio Grande Valley, for example, complained that they frequently heard about policy or procedural changes only through informal communication with their counterparts at the other agency.

Colocation. In the two sites where all TANF case management and processing is privatized  Wisconsin and Palm Beach County  public and private agency staff are typically colocated. In the other four sites, colocation of staff occurred only in some offices or not at all (Table VI.1).

Table VI.1.
Colocation of Staff From Public and Private Agencies
Study Site Extent of Colocation
Delaware No colocation
Hennepin County Usually not colocated
Lower Rio Grande Valley No colocation
San Diego County Usually not colocated
Palm Beach County All colocated
Wisconsin Usually colocated

While the usual goal of colocation is to increase clients access to services and to promote "one-stop shopping," it also facilitates cross-organizational communication and coordination. In several sites, both public and private agency staff noted that face-to-face interactions among staff from different organizations enabled prompt resolution of issues and decreased the likelihood of miscommunication. Formal and informal interaction can make it easier for public agency and contractor staff to familiarize themselves with each others roles and responsibilities, and personal familiarity can help staff overcome resentments or misconceptions. Some contractors argued that coordination suffered even if public and private agency staff were on different floors of the same building.

Colocation generates its own challenges, however. Resentments about differences in work rules, compensation, or agency culture across staff from different organizations are most pronounced when staff are colocated. Moreover, relationships between staff can be tense if one agency dominates the facility. In Wisconsin, the one-stop centers were run by a partnership of agencies, but the private agency was clearly the dominant partner. County workers reported feeling like "guests" at the center.

Colocation seems to work best when management is aware of the potential for these problems and is proactive in reducing conflict. One contractor in Wisconsin, for example, went as far as placing flowers on the desks of county agency staff to make them feel welcome and made an effort to invite county staff to any social events organized by the contractor.

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