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State v. Federal, or wherein one becomes confused

Here’s my first post of how ever many it takes to get through the healing I feel like I may need to do from my previous job.  This point of this post is to reflect on the myriad ways that state and federal politics and governance come together to impact the daily life of a state employee. This bureaucrat was completely  unaware upon arrival that the structures worked in such concert and that their melody would be at times dissonant.  Also, while I would like to source some material here, there are parts of it that I simply can’t because as I said I would prefer to remain anonymous and feel that some of these sources could focus directly upon the office in which I worked for nearly five years.  While I feel like I’m healing from this very difficult, exhausting job, I do not wish to reflect poorly on anyone that remains there.

The Basics:

As with any employer, there are basic goals and parameters established for success.  When working for the state, the performance metrics are usually stunningly simple in their definition, and sometimes even in their application depending on what you are doing.  For a specialist, the basic metrics are: 95% timeliness, 95% positive accuracy,  and 5% negative accuracy (where positive is defined as completing and approving an application; and negative is defined as completing and denying an application) for SNAP.   The negative case accuracy refers to an acceptable level; for example, of 100 negative actions, only 5 are in error, this is the goal.  Therefore, you should never be ABOVE 5% in that metric. I focus on SNAP here because Medicaid’s rules are far different in application now and TANF has so few applicants that it is very difficult to NOT meet the goals. Ultimately, in exchange for federal assistance in funding the programs and regulation, the states have all agreed to these metrics as their basic performance indicators. Further, through achieving these goals statewide, the state can receive additional funds.

This makes it seem very, very easy to do this.  Truthfully, the specialist position is not hard – it is time consuming and tedious to learn and train.  The average specialist takes approximately 1.5 years to fully sort out the juggling act of client interaction, proper case documentation and disposition, and their role within the larger office structure.  The three metrics, therefore, are intertwined: the more accurate one is, the more timely they typically are as well.

There is a basic organizational structure to the oversight and administration of these metrics (again, all of which is necessary).  In addition to offering the program, states must have an independent review team that is randomly checking into the accuracy of cases, they must have supervisors trained to review and educate staff on error reductions, and occasionally federal workers will visit and randomly pull cases for review.  States often establish legislative review teams and other bodies (more on this later in another post) to do the same thing.  The goal is as much oversight into how the agencies are spending taxpayer dollars (which regardless of political leanings is a good thing).  Here’s the rub: no one can ever seem to agree on which number is to be focused.

In regard to specialist accuracy, the Federal numbers look at payment accuracy and case accuracy.  To them, case accuracy is important, but payment accuracy is the key and each specialist that works the programs should be able to correctly determine an applicant’s SNAP benefits 95% of the time or more.  Most often, case accuracy refers to an error of process (wrong date, failed scan job, etc). In their performance metrics, the state uses case accuracy as the primary means to assess a specialist’s performance, because that is how it is defined by the state (more on these incongruities in a bit).

This is the world in which a specialist and supervisor live and die in working these programs.  Does it seem confusing and combative yet?

The Divide:

As you may remember from my post and the October 2013 link I included, Federal politics pay a large role on the staff of these agencies. In the tension leading to the 2013 Federal shutdown, many politicians on both sides railed against the other and did nothing to prevent it. At the time, in speaking to a very different side of the aisle relative of mine, I said “it’s complete bullshit that some politicians FROM other states get to determine who does and doesn’t get to work in my state.”  The relative, who tends to more localized and state level governments than federal power, agreed.  Positions funded by federal dollars will be furloughed in the event of any Federal government shutdown – this is unavoidable.  The issue with this is: these positions often tend to be administrators and whole units of employees that are working on very important policy and regulations issues for the agency.  Like I wrote in yesterday’s post, I genuinely noted a distinct lack of trust and fear in my specialists during this time, and ended up losing a number of them in the weeks and months after these events to other jobs. It’s a solid fact of life: half your income is derived from federal dollars and no federal dollars are being paid at this time – if that’s the case, then you might be working half time going forward.  The issues resolved and that subsided.

Why is October so important?  It’s the start of the Federal Fiscal Year.  The state’s fiscal year does not align with the federal (this will be important in a few).  Per regulations in policy, the federal agencies in charge of SNAP must notify the states by the 90th day preceding the start of any new methods, regulations, or policies that have been passed and put into the “State Must Also Have This in Policy” books.  So, when a major change will be instituted with the start of the next Federal Fiscal Year, states will receive notification no later than July 1.  It is up to the state to properly prepare and train their staff for the impending changes.  In practice, this typically serves to update the various review boards aside from the supervisor and specialist, who then get to attempt to explain why the mistakes were made when no  clarification or regulation was provided for them to prepare for the change.  This is especially damning in that the start of the state’s fiscal year is July and the state’s extra help positions could be disseminating information. Though I can’t lump this all at the feet of the state’s policy units.

Ultimately, this amounts to both sides not effectively communicating. However, in my discussions with higher level staff in central office, I have found that they did receive the necessary information and upon receiving (after the fact) the information upon which we should have built I always looked for the time stamps of emails.  Sure enough, they were June through July; sometimes August if further information was needed.  In 99% of these instances, it was evident that the efforts were made to inform staff.  Therefore, if the federal regional office and the state central office are on the same page, and then the state central office notified the state regional direction, why did the new information not get to the people that needed it most?

Regionality

I don’t want to labor too long in this section because most of it will be covered in the feudalism post for tomorrow.  However, in organizational structures such as this, the simplest and most effective way to communicate from the highest level is through the passing of notes up and down the chain of county (state), regional (state), central (state), regional (federal), and central (federal).  Everyone knows the old childhood game of whispering a bit of nonsense to a classmate whom then passes it on to another, and so on, until the end of the line where the original message was nearly entirely lost.  However, there is a saving grace – memos and text straight from the original source clarify everything.  Unfortunately, these get lost along the path.

Given the core direction of the state regional offices in adding to correctly administer and develop staff and changes, their role is paramount. The better the regional staff and administrators, the better the region is run and the more effectively things are communicated.  I believe you see where I’m going with this…

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Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Accountability, Politics, poverty, Rants

 

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