Chasing the Chimera of Reform

March 06, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

For a lesson in the promises and perils of government reform, look no further than Maryland's efforts to redesign its delivery of social services to families and children. A key moment for this effort will come soon in the General Assembly as legislators vote on proposals that could make the difference between lip service to change and a bold transformation of government.

In the past five years, the state's Services Reform Initiative has made substantial progress on an ambitious agenda. Its goal is to reinvent the ways in which the state delivers the help it gives children and families with needs ranging from foster care to special educational placements.

The services reform effort has all the signs of success: supportive words from the governor and cabinet secretaries, funding from a respected private donor (the Annie E. Casey Foundation), praise from children's advocates and key legislators, as well as a parade of reports dating back a quarter-century endorsing such reforms.

It can also demonstrate some solid achievements. Prior to the initiative, the state tended to react to a crisis in a household by simply removing children from the home. It also leaned heavily on expensive out-of-state placements for children with unusual educational or developmental needs. As a result, local treatment programs got little business, leaving the state with few private resources in this area.

The initiative quickly reversed both of those policies. That has saved Maryland taxpayers a good deal of money, much of which has been used to foster the development of better private-sector treatment programs in Maryland. That keeps children closer to their families, increasing the chances of successful family reunions. It also encourages new service providers to enter the field, creating new jobs.

But these accomplishments, substantial as they are, could easily be reversed. With a new administration and new cabinet secretaries due to take over state government in less than a year, there are no guarantees the next administration will take care to preserve these policies.

The reform initiative has still not made the final leap to a true reinvention of government -- and that is what bills pending in Annapolis are designed to do. The proposals have not won the hearts of bureaucrats, but they have strong support from legislators and advocates who are knowledgeable about social services and know why reform is so important and so fragile.

The bill focuses on the two issues essential to lasting reforms: money and information. For years, departments and agencies -- Human Resources, Education, Juvenile Services and the like -- have endorsed reports that urge them to pool the money available for services and to collect and share information that would help caseworkers do their job.

But it hasn't happened. That's why the legislation mandating the change is necessary.

The House and Senate bills would also call for a long-overdue information revolution, requiring that all agencies delivering services be able to share information that would help each agency. That is eminently sensible, since the Clinton administration is making generous federal subsidies available for such projects.

Currently, a foster-care worker collects information on a new case with pencil and paper, which is later entered into a computer system primarily to provide the statistics helpful to bean counters. The caseworker has no access to information about mental-health or education services that would be available to the child or may have already been provided by other departments.

Computers have revolutionized business, improving efficiency and effectiveness. They could do the same for social services. Giving overburdened caseworkers the help available to virtually every office worker in private business could compensate for heavy caseloads and eliminate duplication of services.

It's easy to acknowledge that bureaucratic barriers hamper the delivery of services. It's much harder to do something about it. No one should be surprised that cabinet secretaries -- and the managers who work for them -- are wary of being forced to throw away familiar procedures and share resources across departmental lines.

But until that happens, well-meaning sentiments won't do anything to ensure that a social worker will be able to do her job better because she has easy access to a family's case history. A good information system will also create a far more accurate data base than currently exists -- making it easier to see where funds need to flow.

Money and information: That's what will make the difference between well-meaning but transitory reform and true reinvention government.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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