The Most Important Question in Social Services: ‘What Do You Need?’

For dealing with recidivism and other human services problems, focusing on each individual's situation yields the best results.
by | June 9, 2014

Elected officials do a great many things in a day. We review and allocate budgets. We attend groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings. We chair meetings, briefings and hearings. We direct policy and pass resolutions that put policy into practice. But the thing that makes the most difference in the lives of our constituents is the way in which we provide our constituents with the services they need.

I serve as a county commissioner in Franklin County, Ohio. With the state capital of Columbus in our center, we're increasingly diverse -- and increasingly divergent in the needs of our 1.2 million residents. We have worked hard to provide an economic-development environment to encourage new and expanding businesses and jobs, and we've been successful. But at the same time, our region has unacceptably high rates of infant mortality, underemployment and poverty.

My staff and I are working to close that divergence gap, and we've found that it's often not about sinking large amounts of money into traditional anti-poverty or workforce-development programs. We've found that the best way to close this gap is to ask every constituent who calls our office a simple question -- "What do you need?" -- and then connect them to existing agencies, programs and nonprofit organizations with a personal introduction and a clear path of action.

A prime example of this work is our effort to reduce recidivism rates for ex-offenders. More than 1,500 men and women return to Franklin County each year from prison, and the costs of their incarceration, the financial and social services needed by their families and children, and the tax revenues lost due to them being removed from the workforce total more than $329 million each year. Their problems with the law take an even more significant toll on family structure, neighborhood stability and community safety.

Without direct outreach, these men and women often return with no driver's license or personal identification, no resources, no job leads, no housing and less than $50 in their pockets. Is it any wonder that the national recidivism rate is over 43 percent?

My staff and I proactively address this issue by visiting the five prisons that account for nearly two-thirds of those returning to Franklin County. We visit each facility at least twice a year and speak with incarcerated individuals who are scheduled to be released within the next six months. At each visit, we talk about services and programs available to them upon release, but we do not give them general social-services materials and resource guides. We leave them with only the business card of my policy director and ask them to write and tell us about their specific circumstances. We ask, "What do you need?" And we follow up within 24 hours of receiving each letter with specific personal introductions, links, contacts and programs.

Admittedly, the group that writes to us is somewhat self-selecting, and these men and women must be motivated enough to make the initial contact with my office. Yet of those who do, our demonstrable recidivism rate is 3 percent -- 40 percentage points lower than the national average and one-tenth the average for the state of Ohio.

In addition to re-entering residents, we do this same sort of constituent services for residents who touch our Department of Job and Family Services, Child Support Enforcement Agency, Office on Aging and hundreds of community nonprofit and service organizations.

By looking at every program through lenses of social justice, economic development and community safety and by making this a priority, we are seeing significant, life-changing results and cost savings. Imagine if every elected official and every public-sector executive were to make this commitment. Imagine the change we could make in one generation with one simple question: "What do you need?"


VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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Marilyn Brown

Marilyn Brown is a Franklin County, Ohio, commissioner.

ABOUT VOICES

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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