Reinventing the supply chain of safety net services: Pilot begins September

August 26, 2013

John Fowler, chair of the Supply Chain Management Department at the W. P. Carey School of Business, is taking the supply chain concept in a whole new direction – into the world of nutrition assistance, formerly known as food stamps, and other safety net programs. Fowler has been selected by Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) Director Clarence H. Carter to chair the Academic Advisory Board that is helping the department reinvent the social safety net system.

Although supply chain management may not seem to have anything in common with nutrition assistance and other forms of public assistance, Fowler says they are definitely related.

"Ultimately, DES is trying to grow a person’s capacity beyond the need for safety net services,” Fowler says. "And that's what supply chain management does, deliver products and services. It's about what we've learned in terms of transacting with people, whether it involves the purchase of hard goods or providing services."

The ambitious effort to reinvent the state's safety net system, led by Carter, isn't simply a matter of making sure people receive their nutrition or cash assistance on the first of every month. The ultimate goal is to transform the safety net by working to make recipients self-sufficient and by delivering services more efficiently.

Empowering Arizonans

"The transformation will be a new model for social services both in Arizona and nationwide," Carter says. "This new construct shifts away from the administration of single-purpose programs only and instead moves toward an integrated system focused on intentionally growing the capacity of individuals and ultimately reducing their dependency on public assistance."

Accomplishing that goal will require the kind of coordination that is common in successful supply chain systems but not in government safety net programs. The effort will begin in earnest in September with a demonstration project that will implement changes to the system on a small scale.

The Academic Advisory Board – a diverse group of academicians from top colleges and universities – will advise DES throughout the process of fundamentally overhauling the safety net system that provides benefits, goods and services to more than 1.6 million Arizonans. Besides Fowler, the board includes members from the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, UCLA, Regent University and Carnegie Mellon University.

"The department is honored and excited to have such a distinguished group of academicians, including Dr. Fowler, lend their energies to this important work," Carter says. "In assembling the board, we strove for disciplinary diversity with experts in supply chain management, social work, economics, public policy, human resource management and sociology. It is our belief in transforming this industry that we need many different perspectives."

Other ASU Professors Involved

Two other ASU professors -- Steven G. Anderson, director of the School of Social Work in the College of Public Programs, and Chris M. Herbst, an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs are designing an evaluation methodology.

Fowler says his board will work closely with Anderson and Herbst, offering input on important components of the evaluation and ways of measuring progress. "Our role is to comment on what is being done in the demonstration project, bringing the perspective of a variety of scientific research methods to augment the effort," he says.

When he first agreed to participate, Fowler says he was concerned that the board might function as a box-checking group and that nobody would really care what they had to say. "That has not been the case," Fowler says. "Everyone at DES has been very enthusiastic about what we have to say. The partnership is working just as planned."

Fowler says that the basic idea of the initiative is to change both the fundamental design and the operation of Arizona's safety net system, both of which are flawed and are inhibiting the ability of the system to promote consumers’ capacities to achieve better outcomes and reduce their dependency on public assistance.

According to DES, the main design flaw is that the system includes a disconnected, often conflicting set of single-purpose programs with their own rules, funding and service delivery systems. The programs aren't designed to work together to help people eventually become self-sufficient. The main operating flaw is that assistance is focused on a narrow area instead of trying to address inter-related problems. In addition, the service delivery system is inefficient and costly to maintain.

Trapped in the Safety Net

"When people come into the system, they often need more than one service," Fowler says. "They may have a food shortage and they are unemployed. Currently, those are treated completely separately. A social worker might say, OK, you don’t have enough money to purchase the food you need. Meanwhile, job training is what you might really need so you can find work and can afford to buy food. A lot of people not only are caught in the safety net, they are kind of trapped in it, as well."

He says that social service agencies tend to be measured by the services they deliver. For example, nutrition assistance workers are measured only on the assistance they deliver. If a person needs other services, such as job training or counseling, they won't necessarily get such assistance from nutrition assistance employees.

"Eighty-six percent of the dollars given by DES are actually federal dollars," Fowler says, "so in some ways the state has no real incentive to make things better."

The demonstration project will focus on Arizona residents enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps. It will involve case coordination to support individuals and families holistically, and a comprehensive assessment of participants to identify not only their immediate needs but also long-term barriers to self-sufficiency. It also will involve creating individualized development plans to promote individual action to achieve sustained growth and to assess each participant's progress.

DES officials believe that by intentionally working to grow people beyond the safety net, they will not only enrich people’s lives, but also ultimately reduce public costs by shrinking the numbers served and the duration during which those people need benefits.

Fowler says that he isn't aware of anyone conducting this type of safety net overhaul on a large scale. The Arizona effort has caught the attention of stakeholders both in the state and nationally. His board joined Carter in Washington, D.C., in May and Carter held a news conference at the National Press Club.

Bipartisan Program

Fowler says it is one of the few initiatives that he can think of that can be embraced by people on both sides of the political aisle.

"The perception is that people on the right support the efficient delivery of services and growing the capacity for self-sufficiency and that people on the left support helping to improve peoples' lives,” Fowler said. “I really like Director Carter's comment that 'we want to grow them out, not throw them out.'"

Fowler acknowledges that not everyone will become self-sufficient under such an initiative, but he believes that many can.

"There definitely is potential for government to be extremely effective," he says. "We are going to continue to have safety net programs, but we should try to get the best returns from them. We have the potential to make a real difference."

Academic Advisory Board

  • John Fowler, Arizona State University, is the Motorola Professor and Chair of the Supply Chain Management Department and a professor of industrial engineering. He is currently serving as editor-in-chief for a new Institute of Industrial Engineers Journal focused on health care delivery systems.
  • Richard B. Chase, University of Southern California Marshall, School of Business Professor Emeritus, is considered the founder of the field of service operations management. He is an accomplished author and co-authored one of the most widely used textbooks in the field of operations management.
  • John Iceland, Penn State University, is the head of the Department of Sociology and an elected member of the Population Association of America board of directors and the American Sociological Association Population Section Council.
  • Aurora P. Jackson, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is a professor of social welfare focusing on the interrelationships among work, welfare, maternal psychological well-being, parenting in the home environment (including involvement of nonresident fathers) and child outcomes in families headed by low-income, single-parent mothers with young children. Gary E. Roberts, Regent University, is an associate professor of government with extensive experience in graduate government and business degree programs. He also serves on the board of several nonprofit organizations.
  • Robert P. Strauss, Carnegie Mellon University, Heinz College, is a professor of economics and public policy with an academic career that has involved several periods of federal service, including participation on the advisory boards of several federal statistical agencies.
  • David A. Tansik, former University of Arizona associate professor in the Eller College of Management. Serves as the National Science Foundation Evaluator of six Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers. He is the chair of a Community Justice Board that addresses juvenile crime in Pima County.