Fixing Backlogs: An Essential Skill for Leaders in a Crisis

Eliminating social service backlogs will be important for state and local officials as the economic fallout of the coronavirus increases demand.

Eliminating social service backlogs will be important for state and local officials as the economic fallout of the coronavirus increases demand. AP PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | As demand for public services skyrockets in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, public officials need to work now to eliminate the bottlenecks and expand capacity and efficiency.

What does it take to be a successful public leader during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic? It takes fortitude, empathy and creativity. But for many leaders, particularly those administering social services, it also takes something more specific: the ability to address inevitable program-service backlogs.

When a crisis hits, programs meant to serve a certain number of people are suddenly flooded and expected to serve exponentially more people. We are already seeing that with the historic increase of individuals filing for unemployment. Those people and their families not only expect timely help but, in many cases, urgently need it. When it doesn’t arrive, you’ve got a backlog of angry and frustrated people waiting for assistance.

I experienced that exact situation firsthand as a member of the leadership team at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development during the Great Recession. The unemployment insurance rolls more than doubled, creating a large backlog of employment verifications. Today, with the pandemic and associated economic fallout, social-services agencies are again facing an unprecedented spike.

Here are several suggestions for agency leaders facing backlogs:

Start early

Don’t wait to ring the alarm bell to focus your organization on handling backlogs. Identify programs now that are either already experiencing backlogs or are likely to. Take advantage of the institutional knowledge of your staff members who faced similar crisis situations like the Great Recession or a natural disaster to identify which programs suffered backlogs during those events.

Launch a multi-disciplinary task force

While the inclination during a crisis is to put out fires rather than to pull staff together to make process improvements, you need to override that instinct and create a backlog-reduction task force that can identify solutions. This task force should be led by a senior agency executive and include experts in all aspects of the program, including intake, delivery, IT, HR, communications and customer service. This team would be tasked with outlining each step of how each program operates, identify bottlenecks that can be eliminated and areas that need efficiency improvements. Once identified, the task force should put improvements into practice immediately and hold regular meetings until the backlog is fixed.

Boost capacity

Even with new operational efficiencies, there may be no way to meet the demand for services, such as intake and verification, without more staff. Agencies should temporarily shift staff from other programs or agencies to meet personnel needs while hiring and training ramps up.  

Show progress quickly

After identifying your action steps to ease the backlog, implement one that will yield visible progress quickly. For instance, tackling the easiest backlogged cases first will demonstrate to program participants and external stakeholders that the agency is focused on the problem and capable of fixing it.

Prioritize clear and frequent communication with program participants

People being unable to access services is bad enough, but not informing them about why services are delayed, or when assistance will arrive, is even more frustrating. That’s why frequent, plain-language communication with program participants is crucial. This communication should be frequently updated message on the program website or in direct communications.

Understand participants’ perspectives

It is essential to fully get to know the systems you are trying to fix and the problems participants are experiencing with them. Some ways to do that include being a “secret shopper” where a staff member measures the effectiveness of service delivery by calling the help line or attempting to access benefits online. Similarly, you can observe the interaction between staff and program participants or interview help-line staff who are communicating with participants. 

Use behavioral insights

Tap insights from behavioral science to make programs more navigable for both participants and staff. Examples include invoking social norms like communicating that “most people file for benefits online,” harnessing the power of defaults so that clients' best options are automatically selected unless they choose otherwise and providing checklists or decision trees to help clients and staff quickly determine eligibility.

Keep the media informed

When high-profile backlogs exist, the media will start inquiring about the issues.  Your press team should be fully transparent with the media. Share with them the steps your agency is taking to reduce the backlog and improve customer service. That will help reporters provide context and, in doing so, help maintain public confidence during difficult times.

As we face the coronavirus and its' social and economic effects, our nation will need to rise to the challenge in innumerable ways. One of those ways is the ability of public agencies to quickly ramp up programs and tackle critical backlogs. By improving programs today, we can help Americans not only weather this crisis but also lay the foundation for more customer-oriented and efficient programs in the future.

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton. He served as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

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