Staff must bring participants into the program before they can work with them toward employment. Maximizing participation is a key challenge of welfare-to-work programs, and the challenge becomes even greater in light of the high participation rates required under TANF (see Appendix A). In the JOBS Evaluation, 63 percent of those who were required to participate in a typical month had attended orientation, 42 percent were involved in JOBS, and 9 percent met the federal definition of JOBS participation. Below are eight suggestions for maximizing program participation. Implementing these suggestions assumes that adequate staff are available to work with participants and that resources are available to fund sufficient activities-such as job clubs-and support services-in particular, child care-for all those who participate. (See also section 8, on participation requirements, and section 15, on caseload size.)
- Enroll participants in work first quickly. Most of those who fail to participate will drop out before the first scheduled program activity-usually orientation or a meeting with a case manager. Rapid enrollment of new participants signals that the work first program is serious about mandating participation. Additionally, any messages participants received about work first from the eligibility office will still be fresh in their minds. Staff should promptly get in touch with those who fail to attend their first activity. The work first program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has specialized intake staff, who schedule participants for orientation, conduct the orientations, and follow up with those who do not attend.
- Get participants into activities quickly. Delays in assigning participants to activities and lag times between assignment and the beginning of activities can both reduce participation rates and slow down progress to employment. Case managers should have systems in place that will alert them when participants are scheduled to complete an activity. Assign subsequent activities before participants complete the previous one, or schedule activities to flow into one another; for example, have assessment immediately follow orientation, rather than scheduling an additional visit. As much as possible, schedule activities to be open-entry or to start often, so participants do not have to wait long to begin. If an activity does not start right away-because of a waiting list or because the activity operates on a fixed schedule-assign a fill-in activity, such as job search or work on personal issues that might interfere with employment.
- Help participants address immediate barriers to participation. Participants may need to arrange child care or take care of health, housing, legal, or personal issues before they can fully participate. By helping participants locate child care-and facilitating payment for child care-and by helping them to address any other issues promptly, staff can increase participation in the program (see sections 35 and 36 for suggestions).
- Maintain frequent contact with participants. Case managers should aim for frequent contact-as often as weekly-with participants. A short telephone call to ask how things are going can often identify problems before they become excuses for nonparticipation. It is also a good way to reinforce messages about program goals and mandates. Visiting participants in program activities is an easy way to reach a number of clients at once. A case manager in Riverside, California, has found that asking participants to call or check in with her once a week saves her a lot of time, because she then needs to follow up only with those who do not check in.
- Monitor ongoing participation closely. When job clubs and other activities are held on-site, case managers can simply drop in to check on participants' attendance and progress. When participants are assigned to outside service providers, however, a system for reporting on attendance and progress is needed. Ideas include: having the site report weekly (or even daily) attendance information by fax or phone; using a shared computer system to transfer information; or assigning a staff member as a liaison between the service provider and work first. (See also section 20, on interagency linkages.)
- Market the program. Effective marketing of work first at the eligibility office (see section 16) can increase the number who initially attend program activities, and continued marketing can help retain participation throughout the program. Use every interaction with participants as an opportunity to remind them about the strengths of the work first program and about the importance of employment. Explain how the program can help participants achieve their own goals (see section 34, on motivating participants). Place upbeat posters about work first throughout the welfare department and other social services agencies in the community.
- Publicize and enforce program mandates. Clearly articulating program goals and expectations early and often can increase participation. These expectations should be clear in written materials, call-in notices, warning letters, and employment plans or contracts, and case managers should review them with participants. Make sure participants understand both participation rules and penalties for noncompliance, and then enforce the mandates. When warranted, and with due process, sanctions should be enforced quickly and uniformly.
- Closely monitor exemptions and deferrals. Establishing individual (rather than standard) deferral periods, or making deferrals short term (no longer than one month) and then reassessing each situation, can minimize delays in program participation (see section 8). Program staff need to keep track of individuals who have been granted temporary exemptions or deferrals from participation. Once the exemption or deferral period is over, individuals should be quickly called back into the program. An effective management information system can alert case managers when individuals are again required to participate (see section 19); if the MIS cannot do this, case managers need to develop their own system. A specialized "case finder" is assigned this duty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Another solution: on the date a deferral is granted, schedule an appointment for the end of the deferral period.