Five Lessons From Overwhelmed Agencies

By: - December 21, 2011 12:00 am

Last week, Stateline took an in-depth look at what’s causing growing backlogs of work at state agencies across the country. Here are five lessons gleaned from dozens of interviews with state officials, including those who are currently struggling with a backlog and some who have successfully cleared one up.

1. Prioritization is no panacea

When agencies have more work than they can handle, setting priorities in a systematic way becomes critical. But prioritization also comes with downsides. Developing and implementing a reliable method of sorting “high priority” work from less urgent tasks is itself a time-consuming job. What’s more, it can reduce an agency’s sense of urgency for completing work deemed “low priority.” In the end, some amount of prioritization is usually necessary, but it’s never a long-term solution. All the pushed back work doesn’t go away.

2. Process matters

Backlogs are often blamed on budget cuts and staffing reductions. But especially in large bureaucracies, there’s often another problem below the surface: red tape. In state agencies, routines tend to grow more complex rather than less complex over time. Unnecessary steps and paperwork accumulate. Ironically, the sense of crisis that comes with a backlog can provide an opportunity for an agency to streamline workflow procedures by taking a big-picture look at which steps are adding value and which aren’t.

3. Technology can help — and hurt 

Budget crises often force agencies to push back technological upgrades. But delays can come at a high price. Outdated IT systems — from inadequate server capacity to poor data management capabilities — can make backlogs worse. And upgraded systems are sometimes exactly what managers need to diagnose workflow problems and identify fixes. If you don’t know how long it takes workers to complete certain tasks, it’s pretty hard to figure out where the bottlenecks are — let alone how many more workers are needed to fix them. 

4. Fill your vacancies 

Some backlogs are the result of layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes. But in a surprising number of cases, the staffing challenges are more systemic — the problem isn’t that the agency doesn’t have budget authority to hire more people but rather that the agency can’t keep its positions filled. Backlogs have a way of building on themselves. As workloads and job stress creep up, burned out workers quit. Managers, stretched thin, fall behind on recruiting and hiring new workers. But setting aside time for such tasks and maintaining a low vacancy rate is critical to creating any long-term stability in a backlogged agency. One solution for large agencies is to recruit in anticipation of turnover, recognizing that there will almost always be a position open in certain job classifications.

5. Don’t forget training

Budget cuts have driven some state agencies to skimp on training for frontline workers. That can backfire fast, especially in agencies with high levels of turnover and lots of new employees to bring up to speed. Poor training breeds backlogs: Employees who don’t know what they’re doing will make mistakes and slow work processes down. It also breeds more turnover: Employees who don’t have the tools to succeed in their jobs are likely to leave.  

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.