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Organizational Culture in TANF Offices: A Review of the Literature

December 20, 2018
Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment
Understanding Poverty: Childhood and Family Experiences and TANF Office Culture, 2016 - 2021 | Learn more about this project
Organizational Culture in TANF Offices: A Review of the Literature Cover
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  • File Size 626kb
  • Pages 39
  • Published 2018


The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency by providing cash assistance and promoting job preparation, work, marriage, and two-parent families. States receive block grants from the federal government to design and operate TANF cash assistance programs in addition to other benefits and services that promote these goals. Given the flexibility of TANF, states vary in how they implement their TANF programs locally. In addition to local policies and procedures, the organizational culture of local TANF offices may also affect how TANF policies are implemented and how staff and clients experience the program. Aside from the robust literature focused on theoretical approaches to defining, measuring, or assessing organizational culture, generally, and some qualitative studies examining organizational culture’s role in local TANF programs following welfare reform in 1996, specifically, little has been documented about what TANF agencies have done to promote or change their organizational cultures to support positive outcomes for clients, staff, and agencies.

This literature review is part of the Understanding Poverty: TANF Office Culture study sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The study includes site visits to local TANF programs to identify promising practices and to understand how agencies have implemented efforts to improve organizational culture.

Primary Research Questions

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


The purpose of this review is to summarize relevant literature describing the role that organizational culture plays in the delivery of TANF services and its implications for clients’ and frontline workers’ experiences. The review informs fieldwork for the Understanding Poverty: TANF Office Culture study, which aims to identify and describe “exemplars” of TANF organizational culture, that is, agencies whose processes and practices align with ones the literature associates with positive client and staff experiences. It also identifies successful strategies human services offices have undertaken to change their organizational culture.

Key Findings and Highlights

This review identifies factors associated with a positive organizational culture and the potential implications for service delivery, staff, and client experiences. It also draws on broader work exploring organizational culture in other public-sector settings as well as relevant literature on organizational culture in the private sector.

  • Defining organizational culture. No consistent or standardized approach is taken among researchers to measure and analyze organizational culture, but the literature suggests organizational culture can be understood 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.
  • Positive organizational culture. Facets of an agency’s organizational culture that can facilitate positive agency, staff, and client experiences include:
    • Linking goals of local offices and agencies to broader organizational policies and goals;
    • Defining and regularly monitoring clear outcomes and performance measures focused on positive client outcomes;
    • Designing client-centered office environments to promote comfort and process transparency;
    • Designing workflows that are intuitive and not overly labor-intensive; and
    • Fostering innovation at all levels by decentralizing decision making and giving frontline staff autonomy to exercise discretion.
  • Strategies for organizational culture change. Agencies interested in changing their organizational cultures can use organizational cultural assessment tools to diagnose deeply held values and beliefs, broad and frequent communication of new and shared visions with staff to increase buy-in and the collective commitment to change, and discrete benchmarks to monitor organizational culture change progress.
  • Empirical evidence from organizational culture change efforts. Human services agencies typically aim to change organizational culture by changing staff behavior. The literature also contains examples of agencies that have streamlined and redesigned business processes to make service delivery more efficient and accessible while promoting an overall culture of client service. Despite growing research on explicit efforts by agencies to change their organizational cultures, limited empirical evidence exists of the effects of efforts to change organizational culture in TANF offices. A small number of studies have shown positive results related to efficiency in service delivery, client well-being and benefit receipt, staff morale and retention, and overall agency performance..


The research team prioritized peer-reviewed articles and books to explore the theoretical foundations of organizational culture and studies assessing its effect in TANF offices or other contexts. Additionally, the review includes discussion of non-academic research reports that document applied studies of organizational culture in human services programs. Although this study focuses on organizational culture in TANF offices, the review discusses the implications for TANF office culture of a much broader literature, including studies of organizational culture in the private sector and in other public-sector programs.


Gaffney, Angela, Asaph Glosser, and Crystal Agoncillo. (2018). Organizational Culture in TANF Offices: A Review of the Literature. OPRE Report 2018-116. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last Reviewed: December 18, 2018