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Delaware County staff becomes involved in their own work destiny

This article appears in the issue April 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 4]

Bringing cohesion to the job place through technology

When the County of Delaware (Delco), PA, decided to update and improve its Domestic Relations department, management initiated a search for a company that could design a document imaging system. They wanted to optimize their system by developing a work process redesign that would provide better ways for employees to do their jobs through imaging technology.

Changes in society are resulting in a decreasing number of civil court issues; family court issues, however, are increasing. Most of Delco’s more than 27,000 active cases involve support payments for children under 18 years old. A small percentage is spousal support. Cases constantly accumulate due to new divorces and child support agreements being instituted every day. Deletions also occur regularly when eligible children mature to legal adult status or parents reconcile. Changes in circumstances cause cases to be periodically inactive. The only time a case is not retired is when a child is disabled, or specific property settlements mandate payments for college tuition.

Delco selected Trilogy Associates (www.trilogyassoc.com) for the project, and the Trilogy team began to study the department in April from its on-site office in the Government Center. The group included Trilogy President Howard Gordon, consultants Michele Rothenberg, Steve Gerber and LeTonya Durbin, and project manager Margie Sauer. The key goal was not only to automate the department, but to improve efficiency of the department itself.

The department had a paper problem, and the movement of files became a key issue. Rothenberg said, "When we first met with the various sections of the department, we discovered files scattered on the floor and on individual desks. They risked losing a document or an entire file."

Twenty-five percent of the employees’ time was spent handling paper-based files. That included finding the appropriate files and sorting through them. Electronic files would make the desired information instantly available.

Three main methods were used to collect information to accomplish the redesign. First, the team conducted confidential, one-on-one interviews with staff members. They formed focus groups of five to seven people, and also did a productivity analysis to see what parts of the jobs could be eliminated or improved using technology.

"The method was very simple," said Gordon. "We tried to figure out how a client got from point ‘A’ to the end of the process so that we could identify how things should flow. We followed every step of the entire course."

A common thread ran through every interview and every focus group. All participants agreed that the present system was ineffective at best, and stressful and inadequate at worst. The focus groups and interviews involved only management or clerical workers on some occasions, and a mixture of the two on others.

Durbin explained, "We made sure to get the staff involved, not just management. We wanted them to understand they had some control and say on the process redesign. People doing the work need to feel involved in their own work destiny."

While they all admitted to inherent problems, each side often laid blame on the other. Gordon said, "From a big picture standpoint, they all agreed, but when we began to delve deeper, there was a lot of finger pointing. The department lacked enough accountability in each unit."

After intensive questioning, the team determined that staff members were spending too much time on tasks that were unrelated to their core job responsibilities. For example, an intake worker who was assigned to handle new cases would often have to act as a receptionist. "It was a fragmented job structure," said Gordon, "and we aimed to combine the processes together to centralize some of the job functions into one."

However, hearsay was not enough proof to convince them of the inadequacies of the system. Trilogy set aside a 12-day time frame to sample the typical work days of the Domestic Relations staff. During that period, approximately 700 people came into the department. Of that number, 34% had questions that could have easily been answered by a central information center, if one existed, instead of meeting with an intake officer and wasting valuable intake

officer time.

The resulting redesign has set implementation records. According to Gordon, "By county government standards, this has been like a rocket ship. The speed of the county, court and union approvals has been critical to the success of the program. Such cooperation is seldom found in government agencies."

Trilogy presented its plan for the process redesign on July 2. Approvals were granted to begin training on Aug. 26, and new computers arrived in department offices by Sept. 1. The plan became fully operational later in the fall.

During the implementation phase in September, new job descriptions were written, union approvals attained and the personnel department had new institutional job grades for ranking.

Did the department really need such a major overhaul? Durbin stressed that they did. "We soon realized that the current structure would not support the process of automation that we proposed," Durbin said. "The new job descriptions decreased the number of units from 15 to six. The new organization meant getting new jobs created, revamping the present structure and changing the process to fit into the new organizational framework."

The six units are Intake, Court, Hearing, Financial, Enforcement and a Client Information Center (CIC). The CIC is a front-line clearinghouse of information for the public. It aims to be an accurate, consistent way to address people’s strongest needs pertaining to some of life’s most emotional topics, including children, family and money.

All has not been easy or stress free. Rothenberg said that a definite psychological component came into play. "We’ve had to work to change behavior from fragmented to team-oriented," she said. "People in different departments have established barriers. We’ve witnessed a Ôthat’s not my job’ mentality. Jobs are being blended and people cross-trained, making it a big cultural and personal transition for many of the staff. One positive factor is the modification to the ranking system. There are only two grade rankings in the CIC, and most job changes have included pay grade increases."

Gordon claimed that the consultants did not embark on the program to add people with poor technology to support them, or reduce staff through additional automation. Because the volume of work will undoubtedly increase, they wanted to devise a method to streamline the work of the present staff.

That premise does not eliminate the possible need for additional staff in the future. There are no budgetary restrictions on adding personnel, but the department must prove a need. The team has built in a tracking system for capturing statistical data. The system can count the volume of calls, the number of intakes and the length of interview time, the number of hearings and the length of each hearing. Management can then make a more businesslike decision.

The tracking system will take six months before all mechanisms are in place for staff to use the information. They can also determine who is doing what jobs and when. Rothenberg added, "We’re convinced we’ve done it right. Providing statistics is giving managers the tools to increase productivity. We’re taking the department from an old-style operations school to a new school of management and operations."

Delco is also addressing the policies and procedures of the future. Officials want to use the technology to build an expert base. People answering calls can find the history of a particular case, or use an online help system via a Windows format. Employees will be able to input a question and be informed of what data they need for an answer.

Finally, an online scheduler for intake and hearing officers, as well as for masters and judges, is being planned. Intake officers take the initial complaint from someone who comes into the department to file a child support petition. It then proceeds to a hearing officer, who helps conclude how much child support will be provided. If the issue cannot be settled there, it goes to a master for arbitration and, at last resort, a judge. The software would coordinate the schedules of all involved for expediency.


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