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18 months in Massachusetts: A profile in human services leadership

Get valuable human services insights from an adaptive leadership story of success against the odds.

Overview

In just months, Commissioner Stacey Monahan led the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) through a very bleak period to one of human services transformation. This culminated in the transition to a first worker assignment model for SNAP-only cases, supported by electronic document management and a centralized contact number.

This human services initiative was completed on time, and early statistics reveal its effectiveness.

  • Over two weeks in 2014—November 17 to 21 and 24 to 28—DTA delivered approximately 350,000 client services, handled nearly 70,000 call center calls, and had nearly 10,000 clients use the enhanced interactive voice response (IVR) system.
  • Over that same time period, average wait time for the call queue the first week of these weeks was 3:39 and 1:38 (minutes: seconds) the following week.

How did Stacey Monahan’s unique leadership style help DTA realize this exciting human services transformation?

This article was originally published in the February 2014 edition of Policy & Practice magazine. It is authored by Matthew Burnham, Public Service Strategy Executive, Accenture, with insight from Stacey Monahan, Commissioner, Department of Transitional Assistance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Click here to download the full article. 18 months in Massachusetts. This opens a new window.Download the full article for Stacey Monahan’s inspiring human services story [PDF, 218KB].

Background

DTA is an agency with a clear human services mission. It provides food and nutritional assistance, cash assistance and employment supports for 1 in 8 people living in Massachusetts.

Spending most of her career as a political advisor with only a brief period as Chief of Staff of the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services on her program résumé, Stacey Monahan was named interim DTA Commissioner in February 2013. With a short tenure and minimal exposure to public welfare administration, Monahan took over an agency in crisis.

Like other human services agencies, DTA faced a perfect storm of challenges. What’s more, the aftermath of USDA performance sanctions and negative media had damaged the agency’s image and the public trust. The status quo had to change—and fast.

Click here to download the full article. 18 months in Massachusetts. This opens a new window.Download the full article for more insight on DTA’s challenges and opportunities [PDF, 218KB].

Analysis

Commissioner Monahan’s leadership through the agency’s darkest hours shows that leadership doesn’t always require sophisticated techniques to be effective. Her pragmatic, hands-on approach offers several important leadership lessons for the entire human services community:

  1. People: Get to know them, they are your greatest assets

    Good leaders are never isolationists, and Monahan certainly is not. From the earliest days, she spent time with staff, which included a listening tour of all 22 offices. Monahan wanted to ensure that caseworkers’ authentic voices and frontline experiences informed the solutions that she would ultimately pursue.

  2. Communication: At the end of the day, it’s about making connections

    Staff members were not the only people who Monahan connected with during the transformation. She successfully engaged multiple constituencies—the general public, the union, legislators, advocates and welfare rights organizations, and the media among them.

  3. Accountability: People may resist it, but they hunger for it

    One of the reasons that all of these stakeholders were willing to align with Monahan was because she held herself and her staff accountable to timelines, processes and promises. Monahan also worked to foster a much-needed culture of accountability across DTA.

  4. Continuous improvement: Good is good enough—for now

    A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Monahan has forced herself to ignore this inclination, and approached the latest phases of the roll out as a realist.

Click here to download the full article. 18 months in Massachusetts. This opens a new window.Download the full article to read Stacey Monahan’s leadership reflections in her own words [PDF, 218KB].

Recommendations

Commissioner Monahan’s straightforward, genuine approach to human services transformation has empowered staff, rallied stakeholders, and delivered human services outcomes.

Several guiding principles shaped the successful October 2014 launch:

  • Clear executive stewardship.The executive commitment to successful human services change was unwavering.
  • Complete emphasis on accountability. Stronger monitoring and controls supported earlier and easier course corrections as necessary.
  • Creation of a wide circle of support. It was important to listen to and connect with all constituencies impacted by the change.
  • Investment in the right technology foundation. IT enhancements such as expanded IVR and centralized correspondence and tracking tools were implemented.
  • Continuous communication. Clear internal and external communications were a priority at every phase of the human services implementation.

Click here to download the full article. 18 months in Massachusetts. This opens a new window.Download the full article to learn from Stacey Monahan’s leadership experiences [PDF, 218KB].