Never get behind again: old thinking through a new lens.

Author:Ribas, Leo

Always falling behind? Do the long lines, full lobbies, and never-ending stream of new work ever stress you out? Do you feel yourself aging at the very mention of the word "backlog"? You're not alone. The Great Recession of 2008 forced nationwide budget cuts leaving us with 30 percent less staff just before the Affordable Care Act increased our workload by 150 percent. These events f created a perfect storm in our human services agencies that we have been trying to weather ever since.

There have been many attempts to deal with the aftermath, including sophisticated IT systems, call centers, interactive voice response systems, online applications, automated work flow, and automated pending notices. While designed to help us manage the tidal wave of work and meet the needs of our customers, we ended up with systems that manage our work in the 20-45 day range instead of looking at innovative ways to do much more with less. In other words, our efforts focused on coping with the debris left by the storm, not dealing with our new reality; the storm is the new normal.

The number of customers coming in is not slowing, the complexity of the work continues to grow, and the pressure to meet our deadlines is all-consuming. Amplifying our problem is the fact that every technology solution we put in place and every mandatory guideline change requires training that pulls staff away from customers. Our hope is that with these changes we can keep up but the truth is we are only seeing longer transaction times, rising costs, and growing backlogs.

There's a secret to living peacefully in the storm. Step 1 is to realize that much of what is being tried is not helping, and is most likely hurting us. Step 2 is to change our focus from 30-day timeliness to one-day timeliness.

This may sound too simplistic but the "best practices" to weather the storm today deal with moving lines faster upfront and freeing up caseworker time behind the scenes to concentrate on doing the work. This effort to "protect" the caseworker means allotting time away from clients to work uninterrupted and free of distractions to catch up on cases. In theory this designated time to do the work should help, but while we can isolate the worker, nothing can or should stop the clients from trying to interact with us. It's as if only one team takes a timeout to strategize but the other team keeps playing.

When a customer cannot access their caseworker, they begin working different avenues to get information. They call, or "pop in" to the office, or even resubmit a new form in an attempt to see...

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