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Ask the Front-line Workers—Military Lessons for Strategies in Human Services

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
March 18, 2020 

In health and human services programs that serve children and families, the interaction between high-level policy and the realities of daily practice sometimes gets disconnected. At that point, it can be helpful to add a dose of reality by talking with the staff who are closest to the clients—those who work directly with the children and families we are trying to help. People with degrees and letters after their names may at times dominate a discussion about practice—especially if there are no front-line workers in the room. Michael Lipsky’s seminal work, Street Level Bureaucracy, powerfully describes the great discretion inherent in the daily work of some front-line workers such as police officers and social workers. If that perspective is left out of the discussion, what may sound like a good idea to supervisors and policymakers may have little or no relevance to what is really happening face-to-face with children and families. So ask the front-line workers.

A military campaign needs to calculate the resources and contacts needed to achieve certain results, which will be affected by critical relationships both within the military units involved and as those units engage with allies and adversaries or deter them from action. When those front line workers are the guides of the families whom we are trying to help, even more critical content may be lost if they are not prominent in our contacts and analysis. Their lived experience is far deeper and emotionally valuable than what we who have lived at different levels have experienced. They know things about the deep working of, “The system,” and the realities of those lives that we may never understand. So listen to them and include them in decision-making.

The critical ingredients of relationship-based trust among teams: camaraderie, “I’ve got your 6,” seeing resources and results through awareness of other units’ strengths and challenges, willingness to consult staff and partners before taking unilateral action.

Military strategy devotes considerable attention to mission definition, with formal after-action reports that assess what happened against the goals of the original mission. When collaboration across agencies is being attempted, mission definition is the first, essential step toward clarifying goals so that each partner can determine whether the goals are compatible with the agency’s mission as driven by its mandates and its funding streams. But without the knowledge gained from the boots on the ground, leadership is disconnected to employees’ understanding of mission and if they believe it is being accomplished.

There is a critical role for people on the ground (POGs) who are at the front-lines of services and in the cities and villages where stability is achieved—or isn’t. There needs to be recognition that outsiders—whether troops or service providers—are not immersed in a local culture the way that POGs are. POGs must be consulted when considering if the project or system is able to assess long-term costs and benefits that could result in an under-emphasis on resources needed to achieve the mission.

“Keep your head on a swivel.” Front line staff juggle multiple clients and projects and may be the most knowledgeable about how they are finding resources while keeping families stable. They also have the best understanding of the language in other agencies, private and public in order to communicate across agencies and disciplines.

“We get more done before 6 a.m. than most people do all day.” Since front line staff deal with most of the crisis families may face in the human services field, they do more than leadership may be aware of. Expanding or removing one or more ingredients of a project or increasing caseload size for front-line workers and counselors without the knowledge of the day-to-day operations of FLW will negatively affect the project and the staff.

When military strategy is murky or fails, it is often because the mission was too vague: “Establish democracy,” “Defend our allies,” “Interdict supplies.” Similarly, too-general statements of mission can lead to ignoring the goals completely. “Preserve families,” “Child well-being”—these can be defined differently and without discussion of those defined goals, workers will take on priorities that may differ from the funded defined outcomes.

“No man has ever listened himself out of a job” Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States.


Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]

Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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