Futurist: Professor Jodi Sandfort Works to Bring Human Services Delivery Into 21st Century
Story by Susan Maas | Photo by Jayme Halbritter
Jodi Sandfort was working as a case manager for families living with HIV/AIDS in Detroit 20 years ago when her thinking about human services began to crystallize. “I could tell the system wasn’t working right,” says Sandfort, who was a graduate student at the time. She felt “ineffectual.” Yet the veteran service workers around her seemed to find ways to help their clients despite the barriers in their way.
“The women who were my supervisors were so inspiring to me,” Sandfort says. “They saw the families and the needs they had, dealing with this incredibly debilitating disease, and they thought so strategically about how to find and guarantee resources to help.”
The experience convinced her that no effort to move the field forward could be viable without full engagement from the people working on the ground. Now, as professor and chair of the Humphrey School’s leadership and management area, Sandfort is bringing that kind of thinking to bear on a field—human services—that, in many ways, has been stuck in the 20th century.
Tearing Down Silos
Sandfort says that too often government agencies and nonprofits function in isolation from one another. As a result, many people who need help aren’t well served. “There are some people in Minnesota who may be assigned five or six case managers,” she says. “They’re mandated through different programs; there may be a Medicaid case manager, a mental health case manager, a disabilities case manager.” Despite everyone’s best efforts, the path to improving an individual’s quality of life becomes labyrinthine, another burden unto itself.
“These bureaucracies were set up for a time when the only thing people felt like they needed to do was faithfully execute a policy and a program, and be accountable to the citizenry in a kind of abstract way,” Sandfort says. “They’re focused mostly on regulatory compliance: delivering the service, checking the box, making sure the paperwork is there. Now we have to ask, how do we create value for people when the system is failing them?”
Sandfort is out to reform human services delivery. Her method: get state and county employees to think outside of jurisdictional boundaries, imagine what might be accomplished if administrative obstacles didn’t exist, and then figure out how to remove or rise above them.
Minnesota is the place to start the transformation, Sandfort says, explaining it has a long history of public-sector innovation. In the 1970s, for example, it was the home of the nation’s first domestic violence shelter; in the 1980s, of cutting-edge efforts to reform welfare programs. But innovation has stalled, she says, and the University has a role in helping to get it back on track.
Toward that end, Sandfort and colleague Sook Jin Ong (MPP ’14), along with leaders from county human services departments across Minnesota, cofounded the Humphrey School’s Future Services Institute (FSI). Launched in 2016, FSI is advancing a human-centered design approach that keeps the needs and daily realities of struggling families and individuals front and center. A key part of that approach is integrating services wherever possible.
Future Services Institute has a number of initiatives. One is the Two-Generational Policy Network, which provides workers in state, county, and nonprofit agencies opportunities to learn from each other as they share ideas about meeting the needs of parents and children. Supporting whole families has proven to be an effective and efficient route to better outcomes for everybody, Sandfort explains. The network offers half-day workshops for state employees who want to re-envision their work through the two-generational “lens.”
Staff of FSI make their expertise in analysis and program evaluation available to organizations. For example, they’re looking at data on implementation and outcomes of a school-based mental health program run by Olmsted County. Sandfort says that being able to demonstrate that programs work is essential, especially in times of political polarization. And making public programs work better for those they’re serving—and saving money in the process—are goals that transcend politics, she adds.
Another project is an app called MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Program) Connect, currently being piloted in three Minnesota counties. Among other things, the app enables welfare recipients to send messages to counselors and county workers or submit documents using their phones or tablets. It’s an example of a “human-centered” innovation, says Ong, FSI director. “It’s a bridge connecting families, their counselors, and the county.” Technology is an underutilized resource in human services delivery, Sandfort and Ong believe.
An FSI priority is addressing Minnesota’s well-documented racial disparities. Sandfort is particularly interested in how hiring practices exacerbate disparities. To ensure the public-sector workforce is more reflective of the citizenry, FSI staff are helping human resources personnel at the State of Minnesota, Ramsey County, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, and St. Paul improve their hiring and retention processes. “When people aren’t aware of how hiring practices can be racially biased, we perpetuate inequality,” she says.
Sandfort emphasizes that FSI is a collective effort and that her role is giving others the tools to shine. “My leadership is an enabling leadership,” she says, “that tries to walk the walk of innovative management, and allows for creativity.”
Ong agrees, noting that ability stems from the fact that Sandfort has worn so many hats over the years. “She’s really good at seeing the bigger picture, seeing emerging trends in the field, and figuring out what are the right kinds of people with the right skills to shepherd that work.”
As Sandfort works to grow FSI, she is never far from her case manager roots, aware that she needs to listen to those who directly provide the services. “If you want to improve implementation, you have to work with people who are working right now,” she says. “That’s the most direct way to make a difference. We’re trying to change the dynamic for direct service providers who are always working against the system.” And, it goes without saying, for the families they serve.
Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.