Promoting a Positive Organizational Culture in TANF Offices: Final Report

Publication Date: April 27, 2021
Cover image for TANF Office Culture Report

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  • Pages: 53
  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. Are there TANF offices that have made conscious attempts at organizational culture change and how have they approached that process? How have agencies and offices evaluated the effects of these changes?
  2. What are exemplars of productive client-oriented office settings and organizational processes and culture?
  3. What is the day-to-day influence of the various agencies’ organizational culture on clients and frontline workers?

Established in 1996 by the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency by providing cash assistance and by promoting job preparation, work, marriage, and the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. States, territories, and tribes receive block grants from the federal government to design and operate TANF cash assistance programs in addition to funding other services that promote these goals. Given TANF’s flexibility, states, territories, and tribes vary in how they implement their TANF cash assistance programs locally. In addition to local policies and procedures, the organizational culture of local TANF offices might also affect how TANF policies are implemented and how staff and clients experience the program.

Aside from some studies immediately following the passage of PRWORA, little research has focused on how TANF and other human services agencies promote or change their organizational cultures to support positive experiences for clients and staff. This study defines organizational culture based on concepts from the literature as a durable set of behavioral expectations or norms that guides individuals’ actions within an organization and affects how individuals outside the organization interact with the organization.

To address this gap, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted MEF Associates to examine the organizational culture of TANF offices. Building off findings from a foundational literature review, this report documents how six TANF programs around the country implemented practices associated with a positive organizational culturethat is, an organizational culture that is client-centric at its core, guiding staff behavior through goals, processes, and settings designed to effect positive staff and client experiences.


This report explores how organizational culture, office design, and office procedures contribute to shaping clients’ experiences with TANF, the services provided to them, and potentially their outcomes. To date, little prior research has focused on what state and local TANF programs are doing to promote organizational cultures that support positive experiences for clients and staff. To contribute to filling this gap, this report discusses the broader literature on practices associated with positive organizational culture, generally, and highlights specific practices that six TANF programs have implemented to promote a positive organizational culture.

The findings in this report provide concrete examples for human services practitioners and policymakers interested in improving service delivery. They also provide insights for researchers interested in building evidence about organizational culture change initiatives in TANF programs and their implications for clients, staff, and overall agency performance.

Key Findings and Highlights

We examined how six TANF programs approached organizational change as well as the ways they sought to promote and sustain a positive organizational culture. This report documents examples, from across the six programs of organizational culture change initiative strategies; practices to promote and sustain a positive organizational culture; and challenges associated with these changes or approaches that staff and clients experienced. Overall, we identified several key lessons for human service practitioners and policymakers based on our fieldwork:

  • Promoting a positive organizational culture involves demonstrating: 
    • Respect for clients in goal setting, employment services, and in everyday administrative requirements, as well as
    • Respect for staff by investing in training, involving staff in innovation, and offering opportunities for internal promotions.
  • Programs can promote positive staff experiences as a way to improve client experiences.
  • TANF program requirements might limit programs’ ability to alter client experiences to some extent, but progress is possible.
  • Clearly defined goals help staff translate agency-wide initiatives into actionable steps.
  • Leaders can shape organizational culture in human services programs.


We began the project by conducting a foundational literature review and holding discussions with experts in the fields of organizational culture change and TANF program innovation. This approach informed the selection of six TANF programs for inclusion in the study that made conscious attempts at organizational change and sought to promote and sustain a positive organizational culture. Fieldwork with those programs included interviews with program staff and leadership, client focus groups, observation of client and staff activities, and observations of the physical space. The sites for the six TANF programs included in the study are:

  • Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services (Virginia),
  • Mesa County’s Workforce Center (Colorado),
  • New York City’s Human Resources Administration (New York),
  • Owens Valley Career Development Center’s Tribal TANF Program (California),
  • Santa Cruz County’s Human Services Department (California), and
  • Utah Department of Workforce Services.


Gaffney, Angela, Riley Webster (2021). Promoting a Positive Organizational Culture in TANF Offices, OPRE Report 2021-51, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.