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Facing budget cuts, 12 counties consider collaborating to deliver human services

There's an effort afoot in southeast Minnesota that could have 12 counties collaborating on their delivery of human services.

The idea, now in the second stage of exploration, would be to coordinate some departments such as IT, finance and quality assurance as well as to centralize the administration of programs that are largely electronic already, such as child support enforcement and child care licensing.

The rationale: to improve services and save money.

"…Collaborating we can deliver the needed higher level of services to residents at a lower cost to taxpayers," says Ted Siefert, Goodhue County Commissioner and co-chair of the project's steering committee.

As Paul Fleissner, director of community services for Olmsted County and based in Rochester, explains it, "Since 2003 we've been taking budget cuts. At the same time our [client] numbers have been growing rapidly, especially as the economy grew worse."

Paul Fleissner
Paul Fleissner

A steering committee comprised of representatives from the 12 counties and the Minnesota Department of Human Services has been discussing the effort for more than two years and has developed a blueprint [PDF] for how it would work and which services the counties would be willing to share. 

The 12 counties are: Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca and Winona.   

In this second step of the process the committee has chosen Accenture, a management consulting and technology services company, to devise operating and implementation plans as well as to estimate service delivery improvements, cost savings and any job losses.

"It's obvious our work will change if we go to this model," Fleissner acknowledges, but adds that counties have already gone through down-sizing and need current staff capacity to serve large client bases.

The project could lead to a virtual human-services center for consumers requiring certain services. 

A website and app could be created for people living in all these counties that would link them to an information and resource center with a variety of capabilities, Fleissner says. Those in need of food, for instance, would find help ranging from a list of nearby emergency food shelves offered by faith-based communities or non-profits to how to apply for SNAP, the state food support program. 

But other services, such as investigation of a child protection report, would continue to require face-to-face fieldwork, Fleissner says.

The Accenture report, due in April, will go to the 12 county boards for review and each county will decide whether to sign on.

Praising the possibility of such a regional collaboration, Erin Sullivan Sutton says she thinks the effort will serve people better as well. She is assistant commissioner of the state Department of Human Services.

"We're looking at how best to serve people in their communities. Are there opportunities to use technology more efficiently? Might there be regional hubs of some sort? Also one of the challenges in some small counties is having infrastructure responsible for everything and having a lot of people who have to know a lot of information at a high level but not having specialized skills. This approach would allow for some specialization."

Sutton, who sits on the program steering committee, says Lincoln, Lyons and Murray counties in western Minnesota have effectively collaborated their public health and human services for a number of years.

The Bush Foundation, based in St. Paul, has provided a grant to fund the blueprint as well as the development of an operating and implementation plans and to research cost savings. Other funding came from the Rochester Area Foundation.

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