Minnesota's Two-Way Street

The state's counties are unanimous: If the state simplifies social services rules and regulations, counties will redesign its systems to be more efficient.
by | June 15, 2010

Jonathan Walters

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

It's always enlivening and enlightening to get out into the field and talk with the actual experts in human services -- you folks out in states and localities doing the real work.

Last week I got the chance to head to Minnesota and hang out with 70 or so members of the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators (MACCSA). The theme of the meeting was similar to that of most of these gatherings these days: How to deal with the sharp rise in demand for assistance and services in this bad economy, while at the same time trying to either hold the line on costs, or actually deal with cuts.

While life is interesting for everyone in the social services world right now, it's particularly interesting in Minnesota (where counties deliver social services with state oversight), because counties are in the midst of a mandated push to "redesign" service delivery models to improve efficiency and outcomes.

That push is the result of an agreement that county officials made with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who in the last legislative session floated an initiative that called for collapsing the state's 87 counties into 15 regional offices.

County social services administrators certainly understand that there are efficiencies to be gained by looking across county borders; in fact, a considerable amount of discussion at the meeting was about coordinating services and systems. But a top-down mandate that would turn the entire social services system on its ear didn't strike members of MACCSA as a very good idea. As a counterproposal, they floated the redesign initiative.

What, exactly, is meant by "redesign" is in flux in Minnesota. Part of the irony of the Pawlenty consolidation proposal is that such proposals don't actually address what makes social service systems nationwide so complicated, and often so inefficient: the staggering overlay of state and federal rules and regulations that drive how social services offices do business.

It's not unreasonable for state and federal officials to ask local offices to operate efficiently; it's totally unreasonable to do that, however, unless those same state and federal officials are willing to step up and work with localities on streamlining efforts -- and to consider changing or eliminating those state or federal rules and regulations that don't add value to service delivery.

Nonetheless, Minnesota counties seem committed to figuring this out, and there is clearly a deep pool of talent and creativity out in the counties, which means there is potential for trying out new ways to do business.

There's already one experiment in particular that's percolating. A dozen counties from the southeastern part of the state is in the process of trying to get foundation funding for the launch of what the consortium is calling a "community transformation contract."

The four basic goals of the contract:

  • Greater collaboration among counties and the state;
  • Leveraging technology and existing community partnerships to improve services and efficiency;
  • Measuring performance and outcomes;
  • Implementing a more "consumer-friendly" system.

The contract is actually a brilliant tactical maneuver by this group of Minnesota counties. It essentially takes the Pawlenty notion of consolidation and spins it back at the state. Counties will commit to working together to achieve the above-stated goals, but the state has to step up and do its part, including perhaps helping support and coordinate IT among counties, while also working through the maze of rules and regulations. Unfunded mandates would also likely get a thorough going-over under the contract.

Also brilliant are some of the basic principals that the consortium has laid out for why the effort is being pursued. For example, consortium leaders have been very clear about the purpose of the new contract, which is not to save money, says Kelly Harder, director of Steele County Human Services and one of the leaders of the initiative, but rather to eliminate inefficiency.

Obviously we're not going to reengineer our way out of the current human services crisis. When overwhelming need meets shrinking resources, people are going to fall through the cracks. But it is certainly encouraging -- and energizing -- to see such a large group of human service leaders who clearly get that they need to begin reshaping how they do business in order to operate as efficiently as possible. One hopes that state -- and even federal -- officials will do their part and step up and join the partnership.


More from Columns