A Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies. Communicating a Clear and Consistent Program Message

09/01/2004

Achieving full engagement is a "top-down" effort. The message from program administrators to service-delivery staff and from service delivery staff to TANF recipients is that the mission of the welfare agency is to put recipients back to work, and that recipients are capable of taking steps toward this goal. This message must be delivered clearly and consistently, and is particularly important in programs that offer a broad range of acceptable program activities and afford case managers broad discretion in assigning recipients to activities. Without a clear emphasis on the importance of work and self-sufficiency, programs risk recipients stagnating in activities that are not helping them progress.

Several of the welfare offices we visited have strong leaders who have championed this message in their agencies and throughout their communities. For example, in 1997, program administrators in El Paso County capitalized on the additional resources and flexibility afforded them through PRWORA to redefine the mission of their TANF program. The new mission is to eliminate poverty and family violence in El Paso County by strengthening families, promoting self-sufficiency, ensuring the safety of all county residents, and generally improving the quality of life in the community. To communicate this message to program staff, program administrators printed it on the back of business cards and on documents and posters throughout the Department of Human Services. To communicate it to other agency partners and the community at large, program administrators conducted an aggressive community outreach campaign.

Communicating a strong message about engagement to program staff may be challenging. Everyone may not be receptive to the message and the program implications. For instance, regardless of program administrators' efforts to persuade front-line staff to buy into the changes, resistance was strong when changes were first introduced in El Paso County and Utah. Staff turnover was high as the agencies adjusted to new program goals. To ease the transition in these and other sites, program administrators coordinated agency-wide training sessions to encourage buy-in, supervisors addressed concerns during staff meetings, and front-line staff helped each other to adjust.

Getting the message across to TANF recipients poses a different set of challenges. Aggressive efforts to inform recipients about program requirements do not guarantee that they will participate. Even if they are repeatedly informed in various ways that they must participate in order to receive benefits, recipients may not clearly understand the rules or believe that they will be enforced.

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