Designing Participant-Centered Programs: Participant Reflections on What Works Well in Social Services Programs

Publication Date: September 15, 2021
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  • Pages: 10
  • Published: 2021


The State Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Case Studies project is designed to expand the knowledge base on innovative approaches to help people with low incomes, including TANF recipients, prepare for and engage in work and increase their overall stability. Mathematica and its subcontractor, MEF Associates, were contracted by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to develop descriptive case studies of nine innovative state and local programs.


This brief describes the perspectives of people participating in the programs featured in case studies. It highlights what the interviewed participants most appreciated about these programs and how the services supported their goals. These participant perspectives can provide insight for people designing policies and programs.

Key Findings and Highlights

The brief identifies three broader themes that resonated across programs. Based on these perspectives, practitioners and policymakers might consider incorporating the following elements to design more participant-centered programs:

  1. Enable supportive and collaborative relationships between staff and participants to support participant engagement
  2. Provide wraparound supports to make it easier for participants to focus on employment and training services and support participants’ emotional well-being
  3. Facilitate relationships among peers to create sources of connection, informal networks and support, and shared progress


Over four months, from December 2019 to March 2020, the study team visited nine programs across the country to learn about these programs and how they approach their work to fulfill their missions. As part of the visits to eight programs, the study team conducted in-depth interviews with two to five participants per program. (One site visit was conducted virtually with program staff because of restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not include interviews with participants.) Interviews with participants typically lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and covered topics such as participant background and personal history, past and present employment experiences, program experiences, linkages and use of wraparound services, financial stability and support, and perception and assessment of the program. The team then recorded and transcribed the interviews. The authors of the brief reviewed and manually coded the transcripts from these interviews to identify themes.


Jayanthi, A., A. Glosser, and J. Engel (2021). “Designing Participant-Centered Programs: Participant Reflections on What Works Well in Social Services Programs.” OPRE Report # 2021-150, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.