Urban Wire How to create meaningful and lasting change in state government
Heather Hahn, Ria Amin
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A few years ago, the worst government social service offices in Illinois had rodents, broken lights, and piles of paper so massive that staff literally could not see over them. Needy families seeking help from these offices faced long wait times, lost mail, and unanswered phones. Since then, the Illinois Department of Human Services has cleaned and repainted offices, reworked their processes for providing benefits to families, and given new computers to every frontline worker.

How can other states learn from this turnaround? More generally, in systems often plagued by underfunding, complex bureaucracy, and frequent turnover, how do state government administrations produce change that is meaningful and lasting?

In a recently released brief, the Urban Institute examines how leaders of social service agencies in Colorado and Illinois seized opportunities, addressed challenges, and led change. They achieved their successes by creating a clear shared vision and showing passion for the mission; building trusting reciprocal relationships inside and outside government; and establishing mutual accountability for shared, objective, and measurable goals.

On the surface these ideas are not new or cutting edge, but the way they were employed to address real-life challenges offers lessons for other states. Here are six specific leadership steps that leaders in Colorado and Illinois took to translate these ideas from rhetoric into action.

Framing the mission or purpose

Framing the mission is about putting the vision for social services change into terms that resonate for government staff, clients, and stakeholders. In Colorado and Illinois, framing the mission meant reminding staff why they entered the field of social services and communicating with them regularly and in innovative ways about how their work directly benefits families. This sense of mission and purpose for the change “refueled them,” and motivated them to promote the changes to their colleagues.

Communicating creatively and effectively

Communicating the vision effectively is critical. One Colorado respondent said, “Previous leaders had a wonderful vision and heart but also didn’t know how to translate that to something that got people involved.” To get out the message, Illinois leadership used weekly and daily conference calls with local offices, video and web chats, Internet message boards, e-mails, and visits to regional and local offices. In Colorado, officials placed greatest emphasis on face-to-face meetings in county social services offices.

Creating inclusive teams of stakeholders

This communication, in turn, created the building blocks for effective partnerships. It was particularly important in Colorado and Illinois to listen not only to familiar voices, like close partners and large counties, but to all stakeholders. Diverse viewpoints gave a fuller picture of the need for and effect of planned change at the local level by letting state leaders see “what was happening on the ground.”

Creating an atmosphere of transparency and honest

Part of building these relationships is transparency and honesty. Trust comes from an atmosphere in which leaders admit their mistakes and allow themselves to be vulnerable to their partners. As one Colorado leader said, “Giving people permission to tell you what isn’t working [is important]. You have to know what is really happening.” An Illinois respondent said, “If you’re more transparent about the decisionmaking process, people appreciate being given the opportunity to weigh in.”

Showing results and taking risks

At some point talking is not enough. Leaders must demonstrate actual change and progress. Leaders in Colorado and Illinois knew the value of early wins and went after them. In Colorado, new leaders shortened a social service application from 36 pages to 8 pages, after the state had talked about it for years. “We did it, and it was another indicator that we were going to be true to our word,” one Colorado leader said.

In Illinois, the Department of Human Services secretary got new computers for every caseworker, replacing decades-old computers that hindered work through inefficiency. These actions had a big impact not only on delivering services, but also on showing that change would happen.

Establishing mutual ownership of problems and solutions through objective measurement of progress Tying goals to explicit, data-driven measures is a powerful tool for change and for leadership. It holds everyone—including leaders—accountable for progress and helps increase buy-in and trust. A Colorado leader said, “If I am not held accountable, or [am] allowed to continually explain away unmet goals, others will quickly adopt similar rationalizing behaviors.” Accountability also means helping workers at all levels feel ownership of the change, empowering them to make change while holding them accountable for progress. An Illinois respondent said, “There was amazingly effective shared ownership that, I think, contributed to all of the success.”

Although these actions do not guarantee success in changing state government, they were crucial in helping two states build an environment in which change could be accomplished.

Colorado and Illinois are among six states participating in Work Support Strategies: a multiyear, multi-state initiative to simplify the process for connecting low-income families to work support benefits. 

Photo: The Illinois State Capital  (AP Photo/Seth Perlman).

Research Areas Social safety net State and local finance
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population