A consultant’s diary (longer read)

Out of the blue, got a call from Ray R. Haven’t heard from him since he took my class—when? He’s Director of Planning, County Welfare Agency, and wants me to help write the Agency’s five-year action plan. Haven’t dealt with issues since I fled the social work track and Kenya’s five-year district development plans.

***

Ray briefed me today. Got a briefcase of material.

Now for the cast of characters in this melodrama.

  • David M., Agency Director, on probation by Board of Trustees with its broth of politicos and micro-managers.
  • Agency has four departments:
    • Welfare to Work (Doris P, head),
    • Child Youth & Family Services (Rachel F),
    • Adult & Aging Services (Betty W), and
    • Workforce & Resource Development (Pedro X)
  • Amanda T. is Deputy Director, to whom Ray–remember the Director of Planning–reports. You’ll meet Tomas Y, Family Services’ chief consultant, in a moment.

David forced by Board of Trustees to have a long-term action plan. Who can be against action planning? No one is for it, except Ray and Amanda. Agency is one of largest in the region: Half a billion dollar annual budget, over 2000 employees.

***

Agency waiting room looks like a bus depot in the bad part of town. Private security guard opens doors around 8:30 am. Mostly blacks, Hispanics and Asians hang around in front. “Smokers and down-&-outers,” susses the ready-reckoner. Building is next to probation and courts, all Stalinist construction.

Walls look like they’ve been eaten off and then pissed on. We queue, eventually get up to functionaries behind bullet-proof windows who muffle what passes for service. Mine decides to buzz the outer door open. I sign in. I’ve interrupted the security guy chatting up at one of the females. He buzzes the inside door open, and I’m free.

***

Ray introduces me at today’s Executive Committee meeting. Rachel and Betty are burned out. Fleshy, pasty, pissy. David says not a word. Amanda waits until the others have had their say, and then wades in. Ray’s the only one who smiles. Most of the time I don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s all acronyms, but this part of the learning curve I’ve always liked. Ray and I arrange interviews with each department head, plus David and Amanda.

***

Went to my first meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup charged to work with Ray on the Action Plan. (I have to start thinking in CAPS.) The members are regulation manuals that talk. We’re all grim. Ray tells me later of another meeting, when they were trying to figure out what to call welfare recipients. Clients? Customers? Consumers? Hell, they’re all suspects, said the guy from Welfare Fraud.

***

I’ve just interviewed a guard at a death camp. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is to children, says Rachel about her Child Youth & Family Services department. 20,000 calls to the child abuse hotline a year, only 1200-1500 leading to children being removed from the home. We’re missing lots of kids. We don’t know what bottom is.

Her department’s to reunite children with their families. Reality is the family is the problem. She tells me the single best predictor of a foster kid ending up in the juvenile justice system is being reunited with the family. Some kids have been moved 40 or more times before they “graduate” from the system at 16 years old. Most families trained as foster care parents drop out early. Every foster kid in the county should get life-long psychiatric therapy, she says. Oh, and don’t forget they have more medical and dental problems than do average kids. Most violence done to kids is kid-on-kid violence. An 8-year old kid sexually abuses a younger one. What do you think happened to the 9-year old who committed an armed robbery, she asks? He was sent home. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is, she repeats.

Foster care graduates should be guaranteed county jobs, she feels, since they’re the creation of the county and have no other employment possibilities. Number of kids exiting foster care who are prepared to take care of themselves is negligible. She’s really worried about what’s going to happen once parents are time-limited off of welfare assistance. The Action Plan goal is: “Promote healthy development of children and families and healthy aging of elders that emphasize home and community-based services.” Well, I’ll be long retired before the end of that Plan period! For one second, she’s young.

***

Had trouble getting past security. Another meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. One thing is clear from the meetings so far: Agency staff know what needs to be done, but they don’t know their clients. Contradictory?

If you have 20,000 calls to a hotline, but respond to 1 out 20, you know what needs to be done—more calls have to be taken seriously—even if you know nothing about who is being abused or doing the abuse. Plus who needs to know the clients, when all trends are getting worse. Next year there’ll be even more calls. The gap between implementation and results is so big, you can’t worry about results (i.e., the impact on the client), until you do something to address implementation (i.e., answer those hotlines).

***

Overheard in one of the offices: “There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t thank God I wasn’t born black!”

***

Interviewed Tomas Y today. He’s Rachel’s hired gun to inject new energy into Child Youth & Family Services. He said a good deal about walking the talk. Interview neatly summarizes the Agency’s problems and proposed solutions:

In brief, the Agency is too

´           fragmented and departmental

´           centralized and headquarters-oriented

´           specialized and narrowly focused

´           focused on needs and immediate crisis response

´           client-centered

´           rooted to desks and offices far from the real problems

´           constrained by categorical funding; and

´           hamstrung by the employee’s union.

Therefore, the Agency should

´           provide integrated services

´           be decentralized and located in the neighborhoods

´           be more generalist and multidisciplinary

´           focused on people’s strengths and longer term prevention and recovery strategies

´           be centered around the whole family

´           have mobile units that go to where the problems are

´           have much more flexible funding; and

´           be working with community-based organizations under performance based contracts.

Tomas has no—repeat: no—examples of where integrated, decentralized, multidisciplinary, preventative, strengths-oriented, whole-family, mobile, flexibly funded place-based organizations have worked. There must be examples somewhere—right?—but no one here can point to them. In sum: All the problems, but not any of the solutions, are found in the Agency, while the solutions, all outside the Agency, haven’t yet been found by those who responsible for finding them. This they call walking the talk.

In the last decade, the Agency has injected into the county economy nearly $2.5 billion in cash assistance alone (excluding staff salaries). For all its hand-wringing about intractable problems, the Agency is a major player here.

***

The Executive Committee loved my first draft of the roadmap! Convinced them that the Action Plan should have two parts—a roadmap for the future and then the Plan itself. That way, even if the Board of Trustees or the Agency’s critics don’t like specifics of the Plan—what’s this on page 57, line 3?—they still can sign off on the Plan as a whole because they bought into to the short roadmap earlier.

BTW, remember the security guard? He’s been fired. Caught being sucked off. Ray and I speculate about this.

***

We met with Doris, head of the Agency’s largest department, Welfare to Work. Is upset with Rachel’s concern re: What happens to kids of parent who are time-limited off welfare. What are we doing worrying about a problem that hasn’t come up yet and may not even be a problem? We haven’t seen any evidence this is a problem. The whole point of Welfare Reform is that those on the rolls can’t depend indefinitely on the Agency. They have to fall back on their “families” and “communities” at some point. The safety net is gone. The last resort is the safe haven (no scare quotes needed) of community organizations. We no longer provide cash, but match people to jobs. How are the job groups working? I ask. Some 35% of those on the rolls don’t even show up for them. Maybe they’re already employed, she hazards. Or maybe she hopes I start a rumor to that effect.

***

Executive Committee had meeting to discuss Chapters 1 – 3 (includes “Goals, Strategies and Policies”). I’m always struck by how meetings rehearse all over again who the departments are, what are their problems, and why they can’t do what needs to be done. It’s Agency auto-suggestion enabling it to reconstitute itself daily. Result: There’s always twice as much ground to cover.

***

I’m told to reduce the Plan to a sentence that the Broad of Trustees can understand. A sentence. Okey-dokey:

The Action Plan’s eight goals promote, increase or improve the stability, health and well-being, security and learning, capacity building and access, independence and self-sufficiency, and, equally important, the participation and accountability of County families, neighborhoods, and individuals (including children, elders and persons with disabilities) in the planning, delivery and evaluation of services offered by the Agency and its providers.

Christ.

***

Interviewed Betty, head of Adult & Aging. Department seems to have its act together, i.e., relies on community-based organizations (CBOs), contractors, encourages local capacity building, has new ideas about public/private partnerships. Feels its approach could be extended Agency-wide to the other departments. Two trends strike her: fastest growing segment of the population is the old-old, the over 85’s. Second, dramatic increase in services required for veterans, with younger veterans than in recent past. And here I was stuck in the Vietnam era. . .

***

Met again with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Went through the draft Plan, goal by goal, focusing on the new policies and strategies for implementing the eight goals. They blew me out of the water with comments. From top to bottom and with apologies to Gregory Corso’s “Bomb”:

***

Ray presented the revised proposals to the Executive Committee. Decided not to submit the full text of each, but to introduce ideas for initial buy-in and formulate the way they wanted. The next meeting we’d submit the full text, with their changes incorporated.

The proposals weren’t savaged as much as I thought by the department heads. This worries me. Key proposal is the cross-departmental Family Intervention Team (FIT). Rachel felt that the FIT members would have to be new hires. We just don’t have enough staff. Doris dittoed the same for welfare-for-work. I’ll have to change the reference to “Job Group Leader.” A lot of these people aren’t Agency staff, but from CBOs. I tell her I got the info from her people in the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Sometimes I wonder if my staff know anything, she said.

Oh, oh. She’s seen the proposal’s implications, i.e., more scrutiny of her staff and its outputs. DOES NOT LIKE IT. We need random assignment of referrals to the Team, she says abruptly. Tomas says Team should be working on referrals made in light of assessments, as proposed. I’d rather have the support of Doris than Tomas. Is his support the kiss of death? Doris clams up. This is dangerous. We’re changing the titles from Client-Initiated etc to Agency Services Integration and Innovation (ASII) and from Community-Initiated etc to Community Services Integration and Innovation (CSII). Beats my favored acronym, PISI (Pilot Initiative for Service Integration).

Too late, we see that our overheads backfired in one big way. Only after meeting did that become clear.  Doris probably thinks the Team will be her department’s responsibility, notwithstanding the Agency-wide scope. Clearly not so in the text, but not clear from the overheads. Bulleted by bullets. Should have caught this beforehand. So, she’s going to brood for the next day or two (FIT isn’t fit enough). Too bad Amanda and Doris don’t get along. Someone’s got to talk to her, and David’s out of town.

***

By the way, the Executive Committee went word-by-word—WORD-BY-WORD—through Chapter 3’s goals, strategies and policies. When they got to my proposal for developing an authoritative website around the Action Plan and the social service innovations, Doris had the field. “Authoritative”? Please, let’s stick with simple English! Rachel piped in, Improved communications? 20 years ago we said we would improve communications, and haven’t done it yet. She beams, she’s retiring.

***

Ray has given up on the benchmarks and indicators of Plan performance. First, he had them in Chapter 3, where the new policies and strategies are discussed. The Executive Committee didn’t like them there, and frankly they broke the flow of the text. Then Ray put them in an appendix, which really marginalized them. Then he tried inserting them in the Chapter 4’s Management Plan and that didn’t fit either. So a section on specific indicators has been dropped altogether.

More important than benchmarks, to my mind, is the need to ensure multiple criteria to evaluate the Plan’s performance. I can see it already: Outsiders coming in to evaluate Plan performance at the end of the five years, and what do they find? “Performance falls far short of the Plan’s goals.” The Agency lacks baseline data, management capacity, political will (actually the Agency is committed to do everything), etc. It’s critique that writes itself. So I want to put some obstacles in that path, and one way to do that is to be explicit in the Plan that the criteria for its evaluation are many and different. The greater the chance, then, the Plan performance will be evaluated in favorable terms on some than on others. The performance record will be mixed, not totally negative, which is like life anyway.

***

Had final meeting with David today. He’s back and jet-lagged. We go through the draft chapters, hitting the new recommendations concerning policies, strategies and the innovation units. He again pushes his idea about the Agency facilitating creation and operation of different (some regional) networks of providers that would vary in terms of subject area, e.g., one network for providers working on substance abuse, another for mental health, and so on. He’s articulate, and he’s comfortable talking about nuts and bolts as he is about more abstract policy questions relevant to Agency’s long-term vision. He’s much better in one-on-one private meetings than in bigger ones.

Doris has been maneuvering behind the scenes. David tells us she saw him in the morning and said, Yes, she supports FIT, but she can’t possibly agree to fund it until her own staffing problems are solved. David sees this as reasonable. Ray doesn’t say much. I say it’s blackmail. I tell David she’s holding ransom a fifteen-person unit by demanding that her 60+ vacancies be filled first. The punishment she’s exacting isn’t proportional to our crime. David equivocates, but says he supports the key proposals and “will make them happen.” I leave, feeling irrationally hopeful that David’s meeting tomorrow with the Executive Committee on the four chapters will end the right way. As for my involvement, it stops here.

***

Called Ray after I got back from my conference. How did the Executive Committee meeting go?

Terrible, he says. Worse meeting he ever had. In fact, told Amanda he was back on the job market. What happened? Seems Doris had made a side deal with the other department heads that would effectively nudge Ray out of monitoring implementation of the Action Plan, leaving it to the separate departments.

In the face of this pre-emptive strike, David said absolutely nothing. Nada, fuck-all. Ray asked what his role as Planning Director when it came to the Action Plan. Why, Kathy said sweetly, you’d be helping us! Amanda was seething. After the meeting, she laid it on the line to David. He had to support Ray on this over Doris and the others. David had the grace to appear moved. Of course, he supported Ray and the Planning Director’s role in independently monitoring progress. Wasn’t that clear? Blamed his jet-lag. Amanda drafted an email to that effect and he sent it as his own to the department heads.

Ray’s still in shock. The only thing solid is waste; the only thing complete is disaster.

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