A successful management information system (MIS) works as both a management tool and a support for line workers. The design and implementation of an MIS should keep both of these uses in mind. In addition, an MIS should support and promote the program's goals. In the context of work first, this may mean an increased emphasis on monitoring and tracking participants, as well as a greater role in simplifying and reducing paperwork so that staff can focus on promoting employment. If the system cannot provide all the support the program needs, administrators should look both for ways to accomplish functions manually and for opportunities to modify the program design so that those functions are not as critical.
Designing an MIS
The following are three key areas which should be addressed in designing an MIS:
- Who should be served? The MIS must be able to identify individuals appropriate for participation and make that information available to line staff and managers. A system that tracks who should be called in for participation, who has not participated as required, and who is no longer required to participate can assist line staff in everyday tasks and provide tools for management to assess workloads.
- What services are being provided? Line staff should be able to record activities, and managers should be able to see aggregate statistics on participation, both overall and in various components. It is also helpful if staff can identify specific service providers' locations, schedules, and slot openings.
- Where are participants in the process? Being able to see where participants are in the array of activities and when activities are scheduled to end helps workers manage their caseloads. It also helps administrators check whether bottlenecks are developing and whether participants are more likely to drop out at certain points in the program. In a time-limited program, a key MIS function is tracking where people are in relation to the time limit. This can be especially complicated if different participants face different time limits or if the time-limit clock can start and stop as the status of participants changes.
A good MIS should be user-friendly and give staff all the tools they need to manage their caseloads. Staff at several work first programs offered the following specific suggestions about what they would like a computerized system to do:
- Track dates and deadlines, to alert staff when activities or deferrals end, when notices need to be sent, and when meetings need to be scheduled
- Automatically generate scheduled notices for participants around program activities and other deadlines
- Automatically schedule participants for meetings, orientations, job clubs, and other activities
- Coordinate scheduling with other staff-for example, by maintaining uniform class size in scheduling participants for the next available job club
- Facilitate coordination with eligibility staff, by allowing workers in each office to view information from the other's system and to transmit information over the computer
- Automatically update information on employment and earnings, as well as basic information like address changes, in the work first system when changes are entered in the eligibility system, and vice versa
- Automatically insert case information onto computerized forms to avoid double entry and save staff time
- Help staff quickly calculate for participants what will happen to their grants and total income if they go to work at various wage levels and work hours
A good system should also provide program administrators with reliable data that they can use in their daily management as well as in planning and measuring program performance. Administrators have suggested that in addition to basic program and caseload data, they would like a computerized system to give them easy access to the following information: average wages and hours for participants who start work; the program activities from which participants find jobs; information on job retention and recidivism; profiles of caseloads and placement information for each worker; and information on the number of deferrals and reasons for deferrals.
Finally, a good MIS can help both staff and participants by providing linkages with other agencies or systems that have helpful information. These might include labor department job banks, child care resource and referral agencies, or local community colleges and school systems.
MIS Implementation Issues
In deciding how best to implement an MIS, program managers need to consider the following elements:
- Resources. What system resources are already in place? Can the existing systems be easily modified to add new features? If not, is it feasible to develop a separate system for the new features? Are money and personnel available to develop the system within the desired time? If an automated system cannot be developed or cannot perform all needed functions, a manual system will be needed in its place.
- Staff support. Successful implementation of any system requires acceptance from those who must use it. Staff need to be trained both in using the system and in integrating it into their daily work. In addition, equipment must be easily accessible (ideally, there should be a terminal on each worker's desk), and system support must be available to answer questions as they arise.
- Timing. The timing of program implementation often determines what system changes can be implemented. It takes time to redesign systems, put them in place, and train staff to use them. A system will be most useful if it is fully operational before program implementation begins. If this is not possible, it is important to prioritize the order in which systems functions will become operational and to put in place manual processes to fill the gaps.
Designing a system is not the end, however. Once a system is developed, programs need to devote resources to maintaining and updating the system, training and retraining staff, and solving problems. If not-if technical staff are no longer available to deal with problems or implement improvements-the system may quickly become outdated and lose its usefulness.