No “Department of Alexis Agyepong-Glover” — sadly.

The Washington Post today reports that one social worker has been fired and two others disciplined for “mishandling” the case of Alexis Agyepong-Glover, 13 years old, whose adoptive mother is accused of abusing and murdering her. The details are horrifying.

The county supervisors have added a full TWO additional social workers! Be still my heart!

“Ledden (Director of Social Services) has also been meeting with county Police Chief Charlie T. Deane to discuss how their departments can better coordinate and share information, and he might ask the county to petition the General Assembly for less-restrictive laws governing what information can be shared across agencies in child abuse cases.” Duh!

GIVEN that budgets are tighter than ever, and social workers are always paid DIRT, we need some tools to make their lives both easier and more productive. And the clients need them to be able to do the jobs they signed up for.

My “Department of Mary Jones” on Facebook idea would be just such a loosely-coupled system – easy to read, easy to post, and two million Americans are already “trained” on it — at no cost to government. See those posts.

And cry me a river for Lexie.

Mary Jones, meet Mary Peters!

Today’s New York Times has a story above the fold that’s REALLY about “The Department of Mary Jones.” Some may call it “integrated case management” when it REALLY should be called “integrated service management” but there it is: For Recession Victims, Patchwork State Aid.

The article begins “As millions of people seek government aid, many for the first time, they are finding it dispensed American style: through a jumble of disconnected programs that reach some and reject others, often for reasons of geography or chance rather than differences in need.
“Health care, housing, food stamps and cash — each forms a separate bureaucratic world, and their dictates often collide. State differences make the patchwork more pronounced, and random foibles can intervene, like a computer debacle in Colorado that made it harder to get food stamps and Medicaid.
“The result is a hit-or-miss system of relief, never designed to grapple with the pain of a recession so sudden and deep. Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized.
“Across the country, hard luck is colliding with fine print.”

The article runs for 21 column inches (including headline and a small picture) across the front page of ‘America’s Newspaper of Record,” and another FULL PAGE inside the first section. NOWHERE is there the slightest suggestion that there might be any solutions to the problems so well laid out. Just problems, problems, problems.

There’s been no apparent attempt to find out if this is a new problem, or just one that’s come up during the recession. There’s no attempt to find out if anyone anywhere is trying to deal with the obvious problems outlined.

There’s no mention of the possible application of “information technology” to the problems. So sad!

What the article does NOT say is that the people who are seeking help from these programs are ALWAYS in a recession of their own. It does NOT mention that each application process can take a person’s whole day waiting in line, filling out paperwork, getting it checked. It does NOT suggest that there might be problems getting transportation to the various offices involved, or that child care is often not available at the drop of a hat.

When Mary Peters came to Washington to become George W. Bush’s Federal Highway Administrator, and later Secretary of Transportation, she was told that to get the staff moving she “might have to kick ass and take names.” Her immediate response was, “Why would I want to take names??”

Creating The Department of Mary Jones will require that spirit!

FACEBOOK and “The Department of Mary Jones” (v2.0)

FACEBOOK and “The Department of Mary Jones” (v2.0)

During Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review, some of the staff began to fantasize about reinventing social services to create “the Department of Mary Jones.” FACEBOOK can make that fantasy a reality. This could bring unity to the most dispiriting, inefficient stovepipes* in American government today.

The idea behind “The Department of Mary Jones” was that the organizing principle of social services should be the client, not the providers of health, welfare, housing, education, etc. We were ‘reinventing government’ back then, and what would make more sense?

Our “Department of Mary Jones” (for I was a Deputy Director of the NPR) would have provided immediate access to all of the information about Ms. Jones, and encouraged/facilitated/mandated coordination among her contacts with food stamps, Section 8 Housing, the police, the juvenile justice system, her welfare case worker, the guidance counselors at her children’s schools, and so forth. Such a system would enable the social worker to find out if there was a problem with food stamps or housing, and the school guidance counselors to notify the social workers of suspected abuse within minutes of seeing a bruised child.

Last year my wife and I became CASAs – Court Appointed Special Advocates – for a dysfunctional family with six kids. They absconded from Maryland and are now four hundred miles away, in a different state. Recently my wife took a call from the principal of the “special school” where the eldest boy is now enrolled. The principal was trying to get in touch with the family’s Children and Family Services caseworker. The principal and the caseworker are less than fifty miles apart and in the same county, far to the west; my wife was in Annapolis, MD. What’s wrong with this picture?

This inability to communicate and collaborate across agencies (and within them!) is neither new nor novel. Kids can get killed because information and actions taken aren’t shared. For just one example, see “Review Finds Agencies, Nonprofits Failed to Coordinate in Jacks Case” (Washington Post, April 2, 2009, and the underlying DC Inspector General’s report at:

FACEBOOK could be the solution to this problem, in so many ways. First, if everyone involved became a “fan” of Mary Jones, then whatever they posted would be instantly and automatically available to everyone else. A quick review of her page at any hour would bring each worker fully up-to-date. The caseworkers’ workloads would be more easily (and quickly) accessed, from their FACEBOOK homepages. Supervisors at each agency, also enrolled as fans, could check on their workers’ efforts just as quickly and easily. All staff could work from anywhere that has Internet access. Such a system should be both more effective and more efficient.

There are now over 200 million users of FACEBOOK worldwide, so there’s unlikely to be a learning curve for many workers. If you’re a user of FACEBOOK, you can readily imagine how such a system would work!

What’s not to like? Well, there’s the privacy issue. In practice, it would be trivial to put the FACEBOOK software onto secure servers, and the information could be made as secure as anything that the Central Intelligence Agency is involved with. Caseworkers already work with a great deal of confidential information.

Also, recent attempts to create an integrated case management system in Fairfax County, Virginia, have foundered on both the data sharing (privacy) issues and because “the rules” do not permit commingling administrative grants across TANF, Food Stamps, etc., to pay for an integrated system.

It would be nice to think that all we’d need is a few “Yes Lawyers” rather than all the “No Lawyers.” In fact, both the data sharing issues and the commingling of grant monies would require changes in legislation as well as policy and regulation. But the vision of a FACEBOOK-driven integrated services delivery system should not be hard to sell in an Administration as “wired” as this one!

Of course, it might be an incentive to know that Canada (and other countries are well on the road to developing such systems, with or without America’s “high tech” Web 2.0 services, such as FACEBOOK. IBM’s Center for the Business of Government published a research report in 2008 entitled Integrating Service Delivery Across Levels of Government: Case Studies of Canada and Other Countries (available in full at

(If we succeed in developing such a system, it will soon become apparent that the next steps must be a transfer pricing model and the channels needed to move resources quickly to where they are needed. But that’s another story.)

If we really care about children and families at risk, we need to solve the problem of coordinating multitudinous agencies and workers. FACEBOOK could make it happen, in a New York Minute.

Robert A. Knisely
*As we now know, only on the East and West Coasts do we refer to “stovepipe” agencies. In the Midwest, they’re known as “silos.” We can’t even agree on the same terminology for the vertical focus of most government agencies. We’re caught in the same trap!