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States applaud agency's shift from adversary to advocate in alliance for poor families.


t was a well-deserved moment in the sun for Donna Cabral. Officials at the Boston office of the Administration for Children and Families had finished examining 30 different Head Start programs throughout New England, and Cabral's was one of seven to earn "excellent" ratings late last year. "I just felt an incredible sense of pride," said Cabral from her office in Somerville, Mass., just outside Boston.

Head Start's primary goal is to prepare 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income families for school. During 16 years running Somerville's Head Start program, Cabral has mastered all the basics of providing health care and preschool education for these children while training new mothers in the art of parenting. But Cabral has won kudos for expanding her program beyond the basics. For example, she leads regular meetings for fathers of children in the program, training them in everything from diaper changing to nutrition. She has conducted seminars on substance abuse, computer skills and resume preparation. She has taken parents in her program to area colleges and helped them enroll in courses. Louise Eldridge, the Head Start administrator at the Boston ACF office, says Cabral has "taken a real leadership initiative and done great things with her program." That's been no easy task, given the myriad management challenges involved with serving 217 families and supervising 48 staff members.

The accomplishment is even more notable, says Eldridge, considering Cabral was once herself a Head Start parent. In the late 1970s, she was unemployed and the mother of two young children. Her husband was in a job-training program, and the family received public assistance. Head Start "changed my life," Cab-ral says. She sticks with it because she wants to give other low-income parents the same sense of empowerment that Head Start gave her.

Of course, not all Head Start programs win excellence awards and not all Head Start parents show Cabral's drive, but most come pretty close. Seventy-five percent of Head Start programs are "good" or "excellent" in quality, according to the new performance guidelines ACF implemented in the wake of Head Start's reauthorization in 1994. As a testament to the program's success, in December, the GOP-controlled Congress voted to increase Head Start's 2001 program funding by nearly $930 million to $6 billion, the largest increase in the program's history.

Since taking office in January, President George W. Bush has challenged not the program's existence, but its curriculum. Bush aides are developing a uniform curriculum that would stress literacy. Under Bush's plan, students would be checked for increased literacy with occasional oral examinations. The proposal is modeled on a program at the Margaret H. Cone Head Start Center in Dallas. If the Cone Center's success is any indication, many more children may learn to read faster under the Bush plan. After the first year of kindergarten-one year after leaving Head Start-Cone graduates ranked in the 94th percentile of students their age for literacy. In 1994, before the literacy program was launched, Cone graduates were only in the 21st percentile.

Bush also has hinted that he may seek to move Head Start from ACF, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department, to the Education Department, though he's pledged to hold off until the program's next reauthorization in 2003. But clearly Bush's focus is on further improving Head Start, not in limiting its scope. He has pledged to continue Head Start's funding increases.

Since its inception in 1965, Head Start always has rallied bipartisan support. But Olivia Golden, head of ACF from 1997 to 2000, says Congress would not have granted the massive budget increase for 2001 had it not been for ACF administrators' stellar results during her tenure.

Golden estimates that between 1997 and 2000, her monitoring teams shut down 150 Head Start programs that weren't up to snuff and turned around scores of others by offering technical assistance. In 1999, more than 1,500 Head Start programs were receiving ACF grants. In 2000, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a joint project of the University of Michigan Business School, the American Society for Quality and Arthur Andersen, found that the Head Start program exceeded the customer satisfaction ratings of luxury carmakers Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Even while expanding Head Start, Golden and ACF launched Early Head Start, a program serving the nutritional and developmental needs of infants and their mothers. It now serves 50,000 children nationwide. The first-ever analysis of program results, released in mid-January, found that Early Head Start children posted higher scores on child development tests and began to communicate more quickly and effectively than low-income children who weren't enrolled in the program.

Golden touts the 2001 Head Start budget increases and the launch of Early Head Start as her crowning achievements. But ACF's other program areas also fared well during her tenure. And ACF has some prominent ones on its list: welfare reform, child support enforcement, child-care grant programs, refugee resettlement. In 1998 alone, 1.3 million welfare recipients left the rolls. Eighty percent found work. Federal funding for child care doubled and ACF launched a Child Care Bureau. Adoptions rose 65 percent. The agency was showered with good press for helping to settle thousands of Kosovar refugees in U.S. housing in 1999. In fiscal 2000, child support collections reached $18 billion, an increase of 123 percent. And ACF has done it all despite a 30 percent reduction in its workforce from 1993 to 2000-but with a generous infusion of funds from Uncle Sam. Moreover, some of the agency's critics say the agency's reduced staff better matches a new, narrower role emphasizing delegating and monitoring.

Doing More With Less

Outside Head Start, the story of ACF since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 and the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, better known as welfare reform, is one of making do with less. Ask anyone at ACF whether they have enough staff and they respond with a resounding "No." Travel freezes have cut into the agency's ability to monitor programs in rural locations. In 2000, budget limitations set by Congress permitted ACF to make only 15 outside hires, and no one applied for numerous jobs that could only be advertised internally. When Golden arrived at ACF in 1993-serving as commissioner on children, youth and families before assuming the top job-the agency had more than 2,200 staffers. It had fewer than 1,500 when she left in January.

Many of the reductions came in the wake of welfare reform. With the passage of the Personal Responsibility Act, Congress eliminated the federally administered Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a block grant from the federal government to the states, which enabled them to design their own welfare programs. ACF staff would ensure that the federal government's money was well spent by monitoring state performance and offering technical assistance.

"Part of the whole idea of giving authority to states was that then you don't need this federal welfare bureaucracy," says Ann Burek, a family assistance program specialist under Golden. And states wanted as much freedom as possible, recalls Alvin C. Collins, the director of ACF's Office of Family Assistance. "Initially states didn't even see a federal role in monitoring." But Collins and Burek say they've found they have more work than their slimmed-down numbers can handle. "TANF is a much more complicated program than AFDC," explains Burek. "You could argue that you need more staffing to effectively monitor the states."

ACF's staff reductions extended beyond the welfare office. Lavinia Limon, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under Golden, says, "We have 28 staff people. When I first got here, we had 50. They have grant caseloads of 50 to 60. It's horrific."

Golden's ACF did its best to find administrative efficiencies. For example, Elizabeth James Duke, ACF's assistant secretary for administration, moved employees in the old grants office to their respective program offices. The move enabled the program offices such as the Child Care Bureau and the Head Start Bureau to distribute their block grants quicker and with less confusion than in prior years. The grant-making staff, in particular, appreciated the move because they found themselves engrossed in "the nitty-gritty of the agency's work rather than being a central grant process agent," Duke says.

Even so, it was impossible to prevent the labor shortage from damaging morale among some ACF staff, particularly in regional offices. With outside hiring virtually blocked by budget restraints, agency managers were forced to fill empty posts with staffers left over from other program offices.

But ACF union leaders say Golden reached out to them through the organization's labor-management partnership council. During Golden's tenure, union leaders attended the agency's senior staff meetings and retreats, and Golden won friends by offering full-transit subsidies, merit bonuses, long-distance courses by computer, and flextime. "While things aren't perfect, they are no longer confrontational," says Helen Hamilton, the head of the ACF branch of the National Treasury Employees Union.

While they complain about their workloads, almost everyone at ACF-including the most overworked staff in the regional offices-denies that the labor force reductions adversely affected the agency's ability to perform its new functions or keep up with its old ones. Asked about meeting her goals, even one regional office critic backpedaled: "We actually did fairly well at meeting them. We've done a lot of good work." Furthermore, relief is on the way. In the 2001 budget, Congress approved ACF's request for a $164 million increase in administrative funding.

The Partnership Mantra

One way ACF was able to do more with less was by working with state government agencies, while also enlisting private foundations and industry groups. The word "partnering" is a mantra at ACF. Most ACF programs are not actually administered by agency staff. They are block grants, funds provided to the states with relatively few strings attached, such as the TANF program. ACF provides a lot of grants-8,000 of them. And it gives away a lot of government money-$36 billion-to help state, local and tribal governments provide child care, homes for foster children and assistance for the disabled, American Indians and refugees. In return, ACF oversees the locals' performance. The agency collects data from the states on how many welfare recipients and refugees have found work, how many children have been adopted from foster homes, and how many poor American Indian toddlers have been immunized. It sends monitors to observe and report back to Washington. It conducts research. A recent study, for example, compared outcomes for former welfare recipients who received job training versus immediate work experience. As it turns out, on-the-job programs are often better for low-skilled workers.

When states succeed, ACF doles out bonus money and spreads the word to other states by hosting conferences on best practices. When states fail, ACF sponsors teams of consultants who try to set them straight. States that fail to meet goals over the long term will find their grants reduced or eliminated. California, for example, has been sanctioned for failing to get its child support enforcement database up and running.

In the past, ACF officials have rubbed state human services administrators the wrong way. State officials remember ACF monitors as being concerned only with whether fire extinguishers were in the right places. They never sensed that ACF really cared about results for children and families. But that changed thanks to the welfare reform legislation and provisions in the 1994 Head Start reauthorization bill. ACF gets credit for its efforts implementing the laws, according to state officials.

"I've been here 21 years and I've seen a huge shift toward partnership with TANF," says Ken Kaz, Wyoming's welfare reform manager. Kaz, like many other state welfare administrators, does complain that ACF's requests for data are excessive. But overall, he says, "I can see a change where they are not telling us what to do, but providing information and trying to give us direction that is appropriate. They let us set up our own programs, but guide us to meet the federal guidelines." "I've been here 25 years, and if you asked me if I was a partner with them eight years ago, I would have said they were the worst," says Jesse Rodriguez, who runs the Northern Arizona Council of Governments Head Start program. "But there has been a philosophical change. Now when they come, they are coming to help." Patsy Thomas, the director of Ninth District Opportunity Inc., a Head Start program in Georgia, says she has found new ways to serve her clients through attending ACF conferences. By using for-profit day-care centers and family-run day-care programs-both ideas she discovered at ACF conferences-she's able to provide services to children in rural areas and to children whose parents work nontraditional hours.

Likewise, Thomas says, ACF has funded research projects examining standardized test scores of Head Start children after the first grade, third grade and fifth grade, long after they've left the program. Some conservatives have argued that Head Start students don't perform any better than other low-income children over the long term. But Thomas insists, "The results we've found are very promising." In addition to individual state research programs, ACF found funding for the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey, which has tracked the progress of 3,200 parents and children from 40 different programs nationwide throughout their Head Start experience and after the first year of kindergarten. Final results should be available by the end of the year. To help coordinate early childhood efforts with the states, ACF regional offices provide funds for states to hire coordinators. The coordinator works within state government to find the greatest level of efficiency for all the varied funding streams from state and local governments, churches and foundations, and ACF.

Where ACF budget limits have restricted research, the agency has sought funding from private foundations such as the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That effort also has involved resources from the Agriculture Department, which runs the food stamps program, and the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees Medicaid. Corporations have helped too. After passage of the 1996 welfare reform bill, United Air Lines Inc., Burger King Corp., Monsanto Co., Sprint Corp. and United Parcel Service of America Inc. formed the Welfare to Work Partnership. Since its founding, the partnership has helped move more than 1.1 million former welfare recipients into the workforce by teaming up with local welfare agencies and job training programs.

Focusing on Results

Staff cuts and program expansions don't usually mix well in government. ACF experienced the mismatch throughout much of the 1990s as the agency's responsibilities in Head Start and child care steadily increased. One might expect ACF's role as monitor and evaluator would have fallen by the wayside as it struggled just to provide services. But even ACF skeptics say it didn't happen. "Their research has been just terrific," insists Ron Haskins, who helped draft the welfare reform legislation while he was a senior Republican staffer on the House Ways and Means Resources Subcommittee. He gives credit in particular to Howard L. Rolston, ACF's director of planning, research and evaluation. "They have really played a valuable role for the last five years getting states to focus on the impact of welfare on kids," Haskins says.

In another area where Congress passed legislation in the 1990s-child support enforcement-Haskins also praised the agency's focus on results. A primary difficulty for states in collecting child support is tracking deadbeat parents who cross state lines, he says. As a result, Congress required all states-in 1996 legislation-to launch new computer databases that could communicate with those in other states. ACF has aggressively enforced the requirement, fining states that fail to comply. The agency exceeded its goal of doubling collections to $16 billion by $2 billion while tripling the rate of establishing paternity. And while it is perhaps early to pass final judgment, ACF's new monitoring system for foster homes-the result of 1997 legislation-is winning praise from state administrators.

Meanwhile, ACF has been attuned to the occasional need to readjust regulations in midstream. In the welfare reform legislation, Congress provided ACF with $1 billion to give to states in the form of "high-performance bonuses" over five years. ACF could use the money to set up incentives for states to focus on certain program areas. At first, Collins recalls, the agency stressed getting welfare recipients into work. More than a million recipients entered the workforce in just one year, vastly outpacing ACF's goal. But many of them also dropped from food stamp and Medicaid rolls unexpectedly, so ACF switched gears. The latest set of bonuses rewards states that best inform low-income workers of their eligibility for those programs.

ACF also has paid close attention to employee surveys. As a result of low marks for management-employee communication in a 1999 survey, Assistant Secretary for Administration Duke ordered supervisors to use the agency's long-distance learning program to take courses in management communication. And the 2000 survey revealed a modest gain: 59 percent of ACF employees rated as favorable their managers' efforts to communicate the agency's mission, vision and values. Only 53 percent had said as much in 1999. Across government, 55 percent of employees gave their managers a thumbs-up on communication.

"I think, more than any agency that I've worked with, this one has adopted the performance and results approach," Duke says. "When we started to implement [the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act], we were one of the pilot agencies and one of the most pioneering in putting together a performance plan to produce results. In terms of a department, we might be small, but in this effort we were mighty."

Critics, Left and Right

Inevitably, ACF has come under criticism from those on the left, who believe the agency isn't a strong enough advocate for the poor, and those on the right, who say it's throwing money at the poor without attacking the roots of their ills. Across the country, activists already have begun to mobilize for the coming debate on welfare reform reauthorization. Congress already is debating the issue and reauthorization is slated for next year. The liberal activists want Congress to hang the safety net out anew. And they cite convincing reports from think tanks such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, the Urban Institute and the Center for Law and Social Policy to demonstrate that poverty has deepened for many as a result of welfare reform.

"ACF has been very disappointing to us," says Deepak Bhargava, the director of public policy at the Center for Community Change, a welfare rights group. Bhargava maintains that the Clinton administration, because it signed the welfare reform legislation, was invested in promoting the program as a success and that ACF was his willing henchman. "They've taken the posture of grand propagandist rather than constructive critic," he says.

Bhargava, like many other activists, also is concerned about the quality of the data that ACF is collecting. "With welfare reform, we hear the conventional wisdom that one-half to one-third are leaving for work. But we know nothing of what happens to the others, and HHS is doing nothing to find out," he says. ACF responds that much of the information Bhargava craves is virtually impossible to obtain without sending someone door to door to query former welfare recipients.

But that's not to say the agency isn't working on improving the quality of its data across all program areas. "If there is anything that's a next step, it's the whole thing of how do we evaluate and assess the outcomes. What data do we collect and how do we sift through it? What does it say about how well we are doing?" asks Diann Dawson, director of ACF's Office of Regional Operations under Golden. Indeed measuring results is not always a clear process. One program can have multiple points of impact, and it may be successful in one but not in another. "I would say that we and the states share some frustration over the difficulty in measuring some of the things that this program is supposed to impact. For example, the quality of child care," says Charlotte Brantley, the head of the agency's Child Care Bureau under Golden. "There is a great debate over what is the appropriate indicator of quality. Should we be measuring outcomes for children? Should we be measuring whether or not parents are able to stay employed because they receive these services?"

Measurement efforts or not, some conservatives assail ACF almost for its very existence. They say that the government is incapable of serving the needs of poor children and families. "It's the whole structure that is the problem," says Patrick Fagan, the William H.G. Fitzgerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation. "The government just moves money around, and it doesn't solve any of the problems." For example, Fagan argues that there is no evidence that children who've graduated from the Head Start program are better off than other low-income children by the time they reach third or fifth grade. Conservative critiques like Fagan's are more about ideology than management, acknowledges Wade Horn, who served as HHS' commissioner for children, youth and families during the first Bush administration. "We may disagree with some of the priorities the Clinton administration set, but they had a right to set them."

An Unlikely Reformer

Olivia Golden looks back on the debate surrounding welfare reform and remembers it as including some "bitter" and "hurtful" comments about "federal bureaucrats getting in the way of states." But Golden and her colleagues accepted Congress' judgment and took a step back. "We had people of enormous goodwill and commitment and native talent but we didn't have a clear enough picture of what our jobs were or how we could make a difference," she recalls. It soon became clear that leaving program administration to state and local officials didn't leave ACF without a purpose. The agency could provide valuable service researching human service programs, collecting data on outcomes, and monitoring results.Our role at ACF, she says, was "about helping people have the knowledge and connections to the broader world that they need to solve their own problems. It's not about saying to them that we know the answer in Washington."

That's certainly an idea with which new HHS Secretary and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson can agree. Thompson isn't expected to take the organization on a very different course. It was Wisconsin, after all, that passed the first welfare reform legislation in 1994 and served as a model for Congress' efforts two years later. At the same time, Thompson has been adept at improving health care services for low-income children and families, using funds from the HHS-sponsored State Children's Health Insurance Program to launch BadgerCare to dramatically cut the ranks of Wisconsin's uninsured. That track record, say ACF career staff, gives them confidence that the agency's successes will continue.

Shawn Zeller is an assistant editor at National Journal.