ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 20. Interagency Linkages


Chances are that your agency will not provide all program services itself. Some services will be contracted out, while others may be performed by outside agencies without formal contracts. A variety of factors-such as political pressure for privatization, restrictions on government hiring, or a desire to take advantage of the specialized experience of other agencies-may lead program administrators to look outside the welfare department for certain tasks.

You may want to think about contracting out those elements that the program has not done before or has not done successfully. In addition, you may want to contract out more services in the early stages of a program, focusing internally on core functions at first and then taking on more roles over time. When considering new or modified interagency linkages, program administrators should be prepared to encounter opposition from unions or others. Such opposition can divert the attention of administrators and can delay the implementation of work first. Administrators need to assess the extent of potential opposition and determine whether the effort is worthwhile.

The late Sar Levitan, the labor economist, once defined coordination in employment and training programs as "an unnatural act between two or more nonconsenting bureaucracies." The key organizational players in welfare-to-work programs-typically the department of social services and providers of employment, education, and training-traditionally have different missions, goals, targeting strategies, and accountability standards, and use different kinds of information systems.

Forming successful interagency linkages is particularly important in a work first program, for several reasons: the need for a consistent and clear message to participants; the need for close monitoring of participants; and the need to facilitate quick movement of participants into and between activities and into employment. This section contains advice for forming linkages with partner agencies and for putting in place successful contracts in the context of work first.

Forming Successful Linkages

Shifting to work first is likely to involve a process of reappraisal leading to the restructuring of existing linkages and the establishment of new ones. Here are a few things to consider in that process:

  • Know your partners: successful linkages are more than good operating procedures. A mutual assessment process-before detailed planning begins-can allow organizations to establish common ground about goals and priorities, anticipate conflicts, and set realistic expectations. This assessment process is likely to work best if it involves staff at all levels of the organization. Remember, too, that it takes time for relationships to develop; establish mechanisms for frequent communication and resolution of problems that arise along the way.
  • Do not assume that partner organizations cannot change. Because establishing new relationships can be very difficult, it pays to explore how much current relationships can be altered beyond their traditional roles. Both Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, for example, have been successful in getting education institutions that previously focused on long-term human capital development to shift relatively quickly to playing a role in a work first model.
  • Sometimes it pays to do it yourself. It may make sense for your program to take on responsibility for some functions rather than try to coordinate across agencies. For example, many work first programs prefer to run their own job clubs so that they can maintain control over the activity's content and can more readily monitor attendance and progress.
  • Be careful about imposing workload and resource burdens. If you are asking for a service from another organization, you should expect to pay for it. If you cannot, then you should try to minimize the workload or propose alternatives. For example, it may be overwhelming for a small training provider to report attendance information to many different case managers in a large program. Some programs have responded by designating a single staff member as the reporting contact.

Contracting Out

In establishing formal contracts with service providers, program administrators should bear in mind the following advice:

  • Address program philosophy head-on. Service providers may have goals, perspectives, and philosophies that are different from those of work first. Requests for proposals, contracts, performance measures, and payment structures should be designed so as to directly address the work first program's philosophy and how it will be incorporated into the specific services being contracted. Regular monitoring should ensure that the philosophy has in fact been put into practice.
  • Establish communication linkages. Communication and monitoring procedures and standards should be clearly addressed in agreements with service providers (see also section 33, on maximizing participation). Mechanisms should also be established to promote ongoing teamwork between line staff at the work first office and contracted agencies. Regular visits to each other's sites as well as interagency meetings, retreats, or conferences are useful communication and team-building tools.
  • Carefully estimate participation levels. Developing reasonably accurate projections of the number of individuals who will be served in each program component is critical to negotiating workable agreements with service providers. Such projections enable providers to plan for staffing and participant flow, to predict costs, and to design a payment structure. The projections should take into account both the experiences of similar programs and local caseload characteristics.
  • Leave room for flexibility and contingency plans. The program will inevitably not go precisely as expected. Agreements should therefore be flexible and include contingency plans to allow adjustments to be made once program implementation has begun.
  • Consider your contracting options. Contracts can be structured in a variety of ways. Service providers can be reimbursed for their costs in working with participants or paid for achieving desired outcomes (such as education completion or job placement). Another option is to contract with multiple providers, allowing participants and staff to choose among them. This can provide leeway for matching participants with programs on the basis of their strengths, location, or special features. It can also improve outcomes by fostering competition among providers.
  • Promote the outcomes you want to encourage. Contracts for work first activities or services should promote outcomes that further the program's goals. The outcomes you emphasize for job club might be placements and retention, while outcomes for skills training might include both credentials attained and job placements. The outcomes should be relevant to the service provided, and should be easily measurable.
  • Protect against creaming. One danger of emphasizing outcomes is that it might lead providers to target only those participants most likely to succeed, especially when funding is at stake. Contracts should give the work first program control over who gets referred to contracted agencies and should specify the reasons why a participant might be denied service or dropped from the activity. Specifying service expectations-in addition to outcome goals-can also guard against creaming.
  • Maintain an oversight and coordination role. Once the contract has been signed, the welfare department's role does not end. The department should maintain a role in oversight and coordination of services.