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Final Destination

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

By Sarah Sweeney
February 23, 2024

One of the most difficult transitions I’ve experienced as an administrator was the temporary closure of my agency during the pandemic. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget, because of the impact it left on the customers we serve. Working in a helping profession it was difficult to look vulnerable people in the face and tell them I could not do anything to aid and assist, but instead direct them toward virtual services or to a call center.

I was new to the administrative role so having to learn the policies and procedures involved in office closures and transitioning to a virtual model of care—which no one understood how to do at the time—was absolutely an opportunity to learn how to improve the way these types of decisions are made.

There are opportunities to align better with our customers by engaging them around services that meet their needs, from their perspective. As service providers we can appreciate what services might best suit our client’s needs but having an understanding from their perspective exponentially improves the quality and quantity of services necessary to meet basic needs.

To better understand how our customers interface with the social service experience, I’ve learned how to create a journey map to analyze my organization through a different type of lens. Mapping the customer experience provides an opportunity to more closely examine the processes and policies that inform program design, leading to improvements in service delivery—which is our duty as administrative professionals within social services.

In my line of work we often have clients coming in overwhelmed, embarrassed or upset at their circumstances and my staff are usually able to help alleviate some of their basic concerns by determining eligibility for our programs and by their patient and kind nature when helping to navigate community resources and provide a listening ear. Low income families often struggle with navigating community agencies due to limitations on transportation, housing stability and amount of available leave time from work, so having an appreciation of their experience during this process can help improve systems based on customer feedback.

For the second time in my short tenure as a public administrator I may be coming upon having to close my agency doors, but for good, which has brought up more questions than answers. While walking the journey map has given me a unique perspective of the client experience when engaging with our services, I have not yet fully come to understand the impact of a permanent closure of services on the customers we serve. This process has allowed me to discover the gaps in process and policy when making decisions on a systems level, and I have come to appreciate the work that goes into communicating major systems impacts to the public.

As a public servant, it is my duty to be ethical, professional and accountable to my constituency and I am hopeful that I can live up to that expectation as we move toward this closure. I feel responsible for the outcome of this process and hope that as the leader within my office I am providing sufficient guidance to staff that is both supportive and encouraging as we embark on this new adventure together.

I believe that public administration is about leading society toward a more equitable and just future and it is up to us to recognize ways in which we can do that on small scales within our communities. The final thoughts I have related to this experience are about the clients we serve, who are so often left out of the conversation. We try to make decisions that are in their best interest, and this process I’m currently engaged in has not consistently done that—and that realization has impacted me on a personal level.

Social services and public administration is human-focused, and as much as I try to be human-centered in my work, having to negotiate social change within a complex industry is difficult to achieve at times. However, public administration is about leading and guiding those who look up to you, and this is what keeps me motivated to keep going, implementing policies that innovate and move communities forward.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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