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Adapting to the cycle of change

Old fashioned carMy great-grandfather had a 6th-grade education. He started off his career making wagon wheels in a wagon shop. In 1907, when he was 32 years old, my great-grandfather got in on the ground floor at the Kissel Motor Car Company in Hartford, WI. The company produced handcrafted luxury cars driven by movie stars in the emerging Hollywood film industry.

He made the “artillery wheels,” made of wood spokes, rims and hubs. He was a master of wooden wheels.

Around 1925, the company began using metal disc wheels, and my 50-year-old great-grandfather was out of a job. He could not adjust to the new manufacturing process. Kissel Motor Company went out of business during the depression in the 1930s. The company could not adjust to the new economic conditions.

“Creative destruction” is an old term in economic theory that is in current vogue. It describes the incessant cycle of business innovation that destroys and transforms the current way of doing business and establishes the new way.

Change is disruptive. No sooner do you get things humming along, when stresses and forces set in. Things work well—until they don’t. The first impulse is to try harder using the strategies that worked before. But these efforts no longer seem to pay off in the same way that they used to.

Change is foggy, too. The path forward is inevitable only in hindsight. Change doesn’t come with consensus, and it sure doesn’t come with new resources. Change is hard on people. It’s hard on organizations.

To meet changing circumstances, the child support program has evolved in the past five years, and will evolve some more in the next five years. But it’s not just child support. The same forces that are compelling our program to adapt are transforming business models, governance structures, work life, and family life. Our program needs to adapt so that we can continue to be effective in today’s world.

Here in the U.S., to take one example, criminal justice agencies—prisons, jails, community corrections, prosecutors, sheriffs, police, courts, community-based organizations—are having almost the same discussion as we are, and they are making parallel changes to the criminal justice system. In both systems, policy and practice discussions center around the:

  • impact of aggressive law enforcement practices on work and family
  • role of accountability, and the opportunity to turn a life around
  • role of services in an enforcement setting
  • role of court guidelines
  • structure of court hearings, and movement toward problem-solving courts
  • impact of reimbursing government costs on compliance and debt
  • very nature of justice and fairness

Our automated enforcement tools collect billions of dollars for children and their families—$32 billion, to be exact. But there is profound instability in family structure and low-wage employment in our country. Our automated tools don’t work very well for about one-quarter of the families in our caseload. Our challenge is to increase child support collections by responding to the changes in modern families. And that means adapting and expanding program strategies to effectively serve all of the families in our caseload. That’s why we are in business.

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Ten challenges for the New Year

"What's Next" headline in newspaperIn my previous Commissioner’s Voice column, I talked about the three generations in our society and three generations of our child support program and how the generational shifts in our society have impacted the way we do business. I gave examples of how you, the managers and staff in child support agencies, are addressing the changes in our caseload in innovative ways.

The members of the rising generation in our society—and in our program—expect clear information. They expect respect. They expect resources. And they expect results. In OCSE, we are beginning a new national strategic planning process for 2015-2019, involving all state and tribal child support directors. We want to use this process to help us position the child support program for the future. We have challenges ahead, but also a great commitment to our mission and the people we serve.

What do we need to accomplish as we face the third generation of our program? As we start the New Year, please consider these 10 challenges. We need to:

  1. Modernize our systems, automate as much as we can, maintain strong security controls, and figure out the right balance between data privacy and data sharing.
  2. Update our communications, customer service, case management, and service delivery approaches for diverse families to get the best results for this generation.
  3. Plan for generational succession in our offices as the people who built this program retire.
  4. Improve interstate enforcement, the last frontier, and develop effective federal/state/tribal/international case processing procedures.
  5. Modernize our laws, guidelines, and judicial processes, including updating our medical support, policies, and routine use of contempt hearings.
  6. Set accurate orders based on real income, reduce reliance on imputed income, keep orders accurate, and reduce state debt on the books.
  7. Pay all of the money we collect to families and address the loss of revenue involved in shifting to 100% family distribution policies.
  8. Figure out how we leverage and coordinate employment, parenting time, health care, and other services for those parents who need help.
  9. Make the most of the political credibility we’ve established due to the work of the last two generations by carrying it into the communities and parents we serve.
  10. Accomplish all of this with constrained resources.

I know we can do it.

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