Child welfare supervisors have an incredibly difficult job. One that is made even more complex by the broad role they play. It is exacerbated by a system that requires them to constantly invent, adjust, and react to changing staff, cases, and endless policy and practice revision. Heroic supervisors manage this incredibly well, but without the right business processes in place, their success is nearly impossible to replicate across all managerial roles. This leaves an agency with pockets of great work, but still struggling overall. Fortunately, there is a tactic that allows an agency to forgo the heroics in favor of across-the-board management success. By focusing on the business process that supports a supervisor, we can improve capacity, consistency, and outcomes.
The Challenge of Supervision
Supervisors, and the units they manage, are largely self-directed. While there are practice standards and tools, how the work actually gets done within the unit is generally up to the supervisor or office. Unsurprisingly, results – removal rates, timeliness, and compliance with practice – vary tremendously across units. This variance is readily apparent in our work with caseworkers around the country. They talk about their processes as broadly similar but the details make clear that there are differing approaches to the work mandated by each supervisor. That variance is compounded by new leaders who bring in practice and process changes. Suddenly, what was good is bad, and what worked is no longer acceptable. It is not unusual – and in fact is the norm – for a single state, region, or county to have dozens of methods to complete the same work. We’ve even seen variation in individual offices between supervisors working under the same manager. Still, when asked about the variation, most supervisors are quick to justify them as best practices for their specific area and families.
It is likely that supervisors don’t have time to think about how the supervision duties could be done differently because they are mired in other work and have little time to actually supervise. They spend significant time reviewing case data with program managers, working on new initiatives, and engaging with the community. Some even carry their own caseload because of staff shortages. When we work with supervisors they admit it’s impossible to do it all well, but what choice do they have? Ironically, strong supervisors want what’s best for their jurisdiction and families, but it is the variation and lack of consistency that is robbing the department of its capacity to serve children and families.
Why do we allow supervisors to develop their own approach rather than provide a set of processes that staff and supervisors can follow to consistently deliver services statewide? How does it serve families and children to permit each unit to sort out how best to follow the business processes? In our work, agencies immediately recognize the challenge of inconsistency, and most have attempted standardization in some areas. However, very few are willing to impose broad process standards either because they trust their staff are doing what is right or because they don’t even believe it is possible. Frankly, the capacity crisis is so great, leadership doesn’t want to add to the pressure or appear to question the methods of supervisors doing everything they can to just keep up. All the while it’s the lack of standards that directly contribute to the crisis.
A Capacity Path to Support Supervisors
We need to help supervisors break free of the shackles of a broken system and develop a set of standard processes driven by good casework, embraced by caseworkers, and that provide a foundation for consistency. It requires collaboration, inclusion, and a relentless focus on capacity. Consistent, well designed business processes permit management of case flow rather than situational management. Standard processes reduce the need for heroics and provide leadership with the insight for sustainable improvement.
A possible first step on this capacity and consistency journey is to focus on the staffings/consultations that are conducted by supervisors. These consultations are the driver of case action – the moment when everyone is focused on the family and what they require. By standardizing how, when, and who is involved, you can structure and use these sessions to build a roadmap for the timeline, actions, and decisions for a case that decreases variation in approach. They provide coaching opportunities, quality assurance, and reinforce appropriate application of practice. Managers can regain their supervisory focus and leverage the process to actually manage cases.
To fully address the process, it’s important to work with teams to build a complete set of processes that help maintain quality and improve throughput. These should be organized around the right work at the right time, effective handoffs, and a focus on the customers of each process, such as courts, providers, and families. Then you can begin to address the measurements used by the agency, ones that are focused on operational capacity and that provide insight that invites collaboration. These process improvement efforts should include the entire program with an emphasis on changes that minimize overall time in care as well as the specific work time in each process. The role of the supervisor in these processes should be well defined. Not every process requires supervision, and decisions should be made at the lowest level that provides safety. By providing the option for decisions to be delegated to someone other than the immediate supervisor, supervisors have the time to focus on ensuring case workers are focused on the new process.
Consistency improves outcomes and increases the ability to manage the organization. When units are using standard processes, you can see where variation is driven by differences in caseload, where staffing problems exist, and where the practice isn’t working. Standardization provides comparable data to measure outcomes, rather than data that forces you to consider each variation and its impact. Standardization makes it easier to train, easier to transfer staff, and helps cope with turnover. Standardization is a key step to creating a system where kids get back home as soon as the family is ready, and the supervisor’s role is clear and achievable.
Getting Supervisors Back to Supervision
There is no question that the role of the supervisor is critical. We need them to be our experts in child safety and stability, but we also need them to manage effective processes, watch over work systems, and keep cases moving forward. When we realize that consistent processes can improve capacity and reduce the confusing variation in local offices, we can focus supervisors on what is important for families. Rather than permit variation that requires your supervisors to be heroes, create a system that works better for everyone. Together, we can improve conditions and structure of case oversight and increase our capacity to do more good. We recognize that many supervisors are heroes, but we shouldn’t require heroics to effectively serve families.