Child Welfare Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD)


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Staff voice is an important element of organizational culture, or the behavioral norms and expectations that characterize a work environment. According to the developers of the Availability Responsiveness Continuity (ARC) model, these norms and expectations direct the way employees in a particular work environment approach their work, specify priorities, and shape the way work is done. The Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services (DMCPS) is a child welfare agency that experienced significant leadership change in recent years and, like other agencies nationwide, has struggled with a decade of staff turnover. In partnership with the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD), they adopted the ARC model to amplify the staff’s collective voice to create solutions to agency challenges which then can feed into changing the organizational culture. ARC is a research-proven strategy for making positive organizational change. It is believed that the ability to improve child welfare agency culture and climate impacts the quality of care for the children and families they work with; the worker’s and leadership’s wellbeing; and the organization’s ability to successfully make changes. ARC has five guiding principles—to be: • Mission driven - in contrast to rule driven; all actions and decisions contribute to client well-being • Results oriented – in contrast to being process oriented; success is measured by how much client well-being improves • Improvement directed – to continually work to be more effective in improving the well-being of clients • Relationship centered – in contrast to being individually-centered; the focus is on networks of relationships that affect the well-being of clients • Participation based – in contrast to being authority based; policy and practice decisions that affect client well-being involve everyone with a stake in the decision ARC uses formal teams to provide structure, feedback and identify solutions to problems. With DMCPS’ implementation of ARC, each ARC team has about six team members (frontline workers) and two team leaders (initially, supervisors, mentors, or frontline workers who previously served as ARC team members in the first round of ARC team implementation). Team members are either nominated by peers or selfnominated to be part of the process. All team members participate in the initial and ongoing ARC training and commit to the team for 6-8 months. Teams have to establish ground rules and actively work together to create a psychologically safe working environment. The project started by creating three teams. The first three ARC teams each developed a proposal to address one of twenty-six barriers identified as contributing to turnover. Each team discussed the problem, brainstormed how to address it, and determined how to implement a solution. They created a proposal to solve a problem and presented their barrier and solution to an Organizational Action Team (OAT), which is comprised of the DMCPS leadership and ARC team leaders. The OAT team may ask questions or request additions/clarification to the proposal. The following solutions were proposed by each team to address a variety of barriers to a positive organizational culture: 1. Team 1: Exception standards used inconsistently across teams. The ARC team discussed the use of the standards and proposed to create a “review team.” The review team would include representatives who frequently used the standard and those who rarely used the standard to look at sample of cases each quarter to make sure there is consistency in the process. By creating consistency in the application of the exception standard, the ARC team believed that Initial Assessment (IA) workers would save time and decrease unnecessary intrusion into family life, in cases where the concerns in the report did not match what the workers found upon visiting the family. Their proposal was approved by the OAT team and is currently being implemented. 2. Team 2: Case assignment log (the log of workers to see who is in line to receive cases, what cases they expect to receive, etc.) was not being used with fidelity or equity among workers. An internal workgroup was also examining this issue and the ARC team had to figure out how the two groups could collaborate to address this issue. The ARC team’s proposal was approved but COVID was a barrier to implementation because the number of referrals decreased and workers’ availability changed due to the pandemic. An implementation team, consisting of ARC team members, leaders, and others in the organization, is still considering this proposal. 3. Team 3: Field support specialist. The ARC team proposed that a field support specialist position be created to help new IA specialists through their first custody, court testimony, etc. and provide on-going support to workers. They created a proposal and are finetuning the implementation components. The submission of the first round of ARC team proposals and their subsequent approval and implementation was Phase 1. The agency is currently in Phase 2. An email from the DMCPS leadership requested nominations for new ARC team participants. Nominee’s seniority, workload, and input from their supervisor was considered in forming new teams. Two new teams were established and began in September 2020 following an ARC training. The QIC-WD and agency representatives learned a variety of lessons during the implementation of Phase 1, including: • Psychological safety is a critical element. ARC team members were initially leery of sharing their concerns about agency operations. Teams had to establish ground rules and make sure people felt safe. • Training was more intensive than anticipated. An ARC consultant partnered with the agency training director to train team members and build organizational capacity. Phase 1 ARC participants gave feedback on the training and it was streamlined for Phase 2. • Team leaders benefit from additional support. Team leaders use a selfassessment tool to help them assess the level of proficiency in the skills they need to lead an ARC team. In addition, previous team leaders mentor new ones. • It was a surprisingly complex process of transferring team members from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Some team members wanted to continue to be part of the ARC process, but their workload had to be shared with colleagues to allow them time to fully participate for another 6-8 months. • The ARC process facilitated new relationships and the opportunity for staff and leadership to work together. Staff gained an appreciation for the complexity of solving problems and knowledge on continuous quality improvement and implementation processes. OAT team configuration allowed for relationship building between leadership and supervisors/mentors/frontline staff. • Testimonials were used in recruitment fliers to identify Phase 2 participants. ARC team participants shared their experience to set realistic expectations about the process, amount of time, and level of commitment necessary to fully participate. • The agency needs to clearly communicate what the ARC teams are working on. There were occasions that more than one group within the agency was working to address the same issue. The QIC-WD is working with DMCPS to study the short-term impact ARC has on agency culture and climate, and worker well-being and will examine the longer-term impact it has on turnover and the well-being of the children and families served by the agency.