One way to facilitate coordination between eligibility and work first is to co-locate those services. Another way is to combine eligibility and work first functions through integrated case management. This section discusses the trade-offs involved in each of these approaches.
The benefits of co-locating eligibility and work first offices can be summarized as follows:
- Communication. Co-location can facilitate communication and coordination between eligibility and work first staffs.
- The "culture" of welfare. Co-location can help to change the overall atmosphere of the welfare office to one focused on work and can increase eligibility workers' "buy-in" to the program.
- Convenience. Co-location can be easier on participants, especially those with transportation problems, and can reduce delays in participation.
Co-location also has potential drawbacks. In deciding whether to co-locate eligibility and work first, consider the following:
- Message. Locating work first in a separate office can emphasize that the program is not "business as usual," thus helping to establish a distinct program message.
- Atmosphere. Many work first programs try to maintain professional offices modeled on the private sector to complement their emphasis on employment. Welfare offices-particularly in urban areas-may be crowded or noisy, have people constantly coming and going, or have guards and other security features.
- Space needs. If the program includes job clubs and other activities on-site, facilities that can accommodate both offices may not be available.
- Participants' attitudes. Because attitude and motivation are such key elements of work first, it might make sense to keep the offices separate if participants have negative associations with the eligibility office.
Integrated Case Management
Another decision involves whether to maintain separate staff for the eligibility functions of the welfare system or to combine the eligibility and work first functions. A "traditional" approach to case management separates the functions of the work first case manager from those of the eligibility worker. An "integrated" approach combines these functions in a single worker.
An ongoing evaluation of the JOBS program in Columbus, Ohio, which includes a direct comparison of these two approaches, suggests that integrated case management may lead to:
- Significantly higher welfare savings and reductions in welfare rolls
- A higher proportion of participants attending the work first orientation sessions
- Higher monthly participation rates
- Lower monthly sanctioning rates
- Better tracking and monitoring of participants
The integrated approach may have been more successful for several reasons. First, an integrated model avoids any lapse of communication between the two workers and ensures a consistent message. Second, participants may take the program requirements more seriously when they know that their case manager also controls their grant. Finally, the integrated approach may help forge a closer relationship between workers and clients, encouraging participation.
Despite these promising results, administrators should be cautious when considering integrating work first case management and eligibility functions. The employment focus so central to work first can easily get overshadowed by the demands of verifying eligibility, processing grants, and minimizing error rates. Potential problems include the following:
- Workload. Eligibility staff often carry heavy caseloads, so their ability to add a focus on employment is limited. An integrated approach necessitates lighter caseloads.
- Multiple priorities. The diverse responsibilities of integrated workers also make it more difficult to make employment a priority. Even with caseloads of under 100, issues of eligibility and benefits tend to dominate integrated workers' time, and the employment focus can get lost.
- Resistance to change. In some places, it may be easier to create a separate employment-focused program than to reorient the existing welfare bureaucracy.
- Relationships with clients. Eligibility staff often function as the "police" of the welfare system, verifying eligibility and protecting against fraud. This may make it difficult for staff and participants to establish the kind of trust required in work first.
- Staff qualifications. Eligibility staff are often successful because of their ability to process and manage vast amounts of paperwork. They may not have the motivational, counseling, and other skills that make for a successful work first case manager. Similarly, case managers may not have the skills that make for a successful eligibility worker.
Because of the challenges for staff of taking on so many roles, integrated case management must be implemented in the context of adequate resources: highly trained staff; clerical and other supports; and high-quality program services.