The Ballad of Stacey Monahan

Update: May 21, 2015: Megan Woolhouse at the Globe brings us up to date on the damage resulting from the Patrick administration’s “modernization” of the food stamp delivery system.

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Original Post: April 2, 2015

“Few of us can resist a story of triumph against the odds — this is that kind of story.”

So begins the very flattering account in last month’s issue of Government Technology magazine of how Stacey Monahan, the onetime Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, triumphantly rebuilt public confidence in that beleaguered agency.

Government Technology magazine specializes in stories “about how a specific agency is using software, hardware, a network or some other information technology to improve response time, provide better service and cut costs.” And true to form, the story of Stacey Monahan’s success revolves around her bold embrace of new technological, data-driven solutions for old problems like limited resources and a demoralized workforce. (Indeed, if this story has room for a co-star, that co-star would be data, the building-block of Monahan’s new culture of efficiency and accountability. As in: “An emphasis on data integrity and investments in rebuilding the data warehouse and creating data dashboards helped staff get a data-driven view of the work they were doing.”)

The article informs us that Monahan’s two biggest triumphs were putting photographs on Electronic Benefits Cards and modernizing the food stamp program by introducing electronic document management and a centralized contact number, which in turn allowed her to redistribute the workload of agency employees.

Thus fortified with these information technology breakthroughs, we learn, Monahan’s pragmatic, hands-on approach succeeded in soliciting feedback, empowering staff, rallying stakeholders, engaging multiple constituencies, demonstrating executive stewardship, creating a wide circle of support and delivering outcomes for working families (all the while leaving no human-resources cliche unspoken).

It’s an inspiring story. And if you’re wondering how its author became motivated to set fingers to keyboard to tell it, you might ask him. His name is Matthew Burnham, and he is a public service strategy executive with Accenture, a management consulting company whose clients include the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (While you’re at it, you might ask if a $70,000 payment from the Department of Transitional Assistance to Accenture had anything to do with his interest in Monahan’s story.)

But alas. This tale does not have a happy ending. It turned out that the Electronic Benefits Cards with the photographs on them were not exactly delivering the outcomes for working families that they were supposed to deliver, and in December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture intervened and ordered that the widespread problems be fixed. Then last week, the Globe reported that the once-vaunted electronic document management system, instead of making for happier clients, had all the while been cutting off thousands of eligible residents from their benefits, leaving them unable to buy food. In short, the technological successes that this story is based on were in fact technological disasters.

Not surprisingly, incoming Governor Charlie Baker announced before he had even taken office that Monahan would not be part of the new administration. But Monahan believes strongly in moving things forward until she gets them right. And she has this nice puff piece in Government Technology to accompany her resume (for which she is presumably grateful to the taxpayers). Maybe there’s an organization out there looking for somebody who “communicates a vision effectively at all levels.” An organization where maybe she already has an in. I understand that the Boston Olympics folks are hiring. Seems like an ideal match.

2 thoughts on “The Ballad of Stacey Monahan

  1. Thanks for pointing out how self-serving articles about great efficiencies attained by automating work process aren’t always as superlative as they’ve been portrayed.

    Anyone who’s worked in tech as an IT director knows to discount the hyperbole coming from under-informed automation experts and software salesmen.

    In fact, it’s hard to scope out a systems strategy to computerize any set of business (or government) work processes, and expensive to develop the system and roll it out and fix what needs to be fixed and expand it as requirements change but that does not mean we should try… we should and we should with full knowledge of risks and costs.

    It’s odd Stacey Monahan would want any credit for the EBT photo ID but maybe it had to do with seeking efficiencies in handling the roll-out not the ill-conceived concept.

    I can see why she’d take credit for automating workflow. Skills in that area are in great demand.

    Thanks for all the commentary and expose about work on the hill in the legislature and executive agencies. I really appreciate the information and your insights.

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