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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 1, 2010

Flawed? Sure, but DHS plan is worth trying

On the face of it, Lillian Koller's assertion that the best way to reduce a backlog of benefits paperwork at the Department of Human Services is to cut 18 percent of the agency's staff and close 31 offices seems, well, counterintuitive.

Detractors of Koller say it's ridiculous. The Hawaii Government Employees Association and various social services advocates denounce the Koller plan as punitive , short-sighted and ultimately more costly than the existing system.

Despite some misgivings about the nuts and bolts of how the plan will actually be implemented, we don't agree with those who say it can't work.

But we have concerns. Even those of us who embrace the efficiency of the Internet wonder how realistic Koller is being in describing a system that will be vastly improved by making it much more difficult for the poor and disenfranchised to meet with a human being would could assist them.

On paper, Koller's plan is supposed to save the state $8 million a year and make it easier and faster for people to apply for financial assistance, food vouchers, shelter and child-care subsidies, employment training and other services available to the poor and disabled.

Koller says other states have made this shift and that the results are obvious in the amount of money saved and the efficiency in getting paperwork processed.

Ordinarily, we'd be enthusiastic about doing away with a system that requires all transactions to be conducted in person. But DHS clients are less likely to have access to computers and more likely to lack the language skills and education to sort through even a basic online application or phone interview.

Where do these people go for help when they get stuck? The plan for only two service centers for in-person assistance, in Honolulu and in Hilo, doesn't seem sufficient. And it's pretty low for the state to assume social service agencies, which have already had their funding slashed, will step in to help navigate enrollment.

But Koller is correct that a high head count does not necessarily mean a high level of service. Who hasn't sat in a government office clutching No. 87 while No. 22 is being helped, seething at the sea of clerical humanity busy at desks while only one person attends to the service window?

Koller's plan gets rid of the case-worker management model, in which a client can only be assisted by their specific case worker, even on something simple like an address change. That system leads to backlogs and creates bottlenecks, she says.

Instead, the department will operate more like a call center, putting the manpower where it's needed on any given day and training workers to assist clients online and on the phone.

The transition will be a fast one, barely three months. We're not convinced that the new system won't simply mean there are scores of people waiting on hold rather than waiting on hard chairs in a government office.

But if legislators are serious about reinventing government and not simply protecting government jobs, then they should stand aside and let this painful but potentially transforming project happen.

Legislators should keep close watch on the DHS's progress and require regular reports. A year from now, they should be able to tell if the new system works or if they have to clean up a mess.