I recently read an article from Governing, Human Services by the Batch.  I felt a familiar pain associated with the “answer” for social services – process management, modernization, automation – the Greek trilogy and tragedy.

I posted a comment at Governing that explains why process or task management is NOT the way of the future.  I had to go back and adjust my answer (over the character limit) so the comment below is longer:

I am a former CIO of FSSA in Indiana. The “process management” system that is proposed here is similar to the IBM (and partners)-led modernization failure in Indiana.  This was a billion dollar contract that the Governor was forced to cancel.  In essence, “process management” is doing the wrong thing, righter – or possibly wronger.

Here is why – we have a fundamental thinking problem in government about the design and management of work.  The design of “process management” deals with three traditional questions, How much work do I have? How much time will it take?  How many people do I need?  These are the WRONG questions to start with to improve services.

All demand is not work to be done – some of the demand we receive is in the form of failure demand (demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for a constituent).  Eliminating the amount of failure demand which I have seen as high as 90% in social services offers us a huge opportunity to reduce the demand coming in.  A leverage point for better designed social services.

Secondly, the flow of the work is interrupted by designing the work into teams and things wind up taking longer when functionally separated – a counter-intuitive truth.  Separated work even with a team will create more failure demand and less flow.  Better ?s are how many demands are done one-stop?  What matters to the constituent?  How long does it take end-to-end from application to benefit sought?

Improving the design of the work requires different thinking about how we manage work.  Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this thinking until after the IBM fiasco in Indiana.  However, you can learn from mistakes others have made.

A better method is to first understand the “what and why” of current performance.  When variety of demands is high – like in social services – IT systems and standardized process can’t absorb the variety resulting in failure demand (or more work to be done).  Redesign the flow of the work by eliminating failure demand and making the work one-stop.  Then automate with IT when a design that works (good flow) is found.

The problem we had in Indiana was that political ideology ruled the day – this at the expense of evidence and knowledge.  Case workers replaced by process and task management.  The system that the case workers worked in was flawed, but the flaw was from poor thinking from management . . . not bad workers.

With 49.1 million Americans living in poverty, we need better services that reach those in need.  Better social services needs to be a government management issue regarding how we think about the design and management of work.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for CustomermanagementIQ.com.  Learn more about the Vanguard Method for service organizations.  Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbittor LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt.