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Susan Blank, Program Officer of the Foundation for Child Development, presents some of her observations from a recent study she conducted of MIS development and use in community-based agencies.

It took months for the case manager responsible for helping Head Start parents with employment to produce a draft of her first Management Information System (MIS) report. She knew that once the MIS was functional, she would have information that would help her in her work. But the report raised as many questions as it answered: Did a caseload of 36 represent all parents she had counseled or only those currently active? What was meant by “active?” Should parents be considered part of the caseload if interaction with her was brief and informal? When was a parent's success in finding a job an outcome that would have happened anyway and when was it counted as a credit to the project?

The challenges of developing a new MIS are examined in an upcoming report by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) on six “two-generation” service projects operated by community-based agencies. The report grows out of an FCD grantmaking initiative that provided modest support to the agencies to help families gain access to two complementary sets of services: employment and training help for parents, and developmental services like high quality child care for children. During the grant period, each agency was undergoing a transition to automated record keeping. Following are three conclusions from the FCD report:

Management information systems can provide important benefits to community-based multi-service projects. The Head Start case manager eventually reached resolution on questions raised by her draft report. The exercise of clarifying definitions and identifying specific questions—routine for researchers but unfamiliar to many grassroots agencies—was a first step in helping the project gather information on family characteristics, staff-family contacts, number of job and child care placements, etc. An added benefit was that the exercise revealed key underlying questions for the project: What do our “services to families” consist of? What is a meaningful level of participation? What is “success”? Paper recording might have suggested such questions as well, but technology brought them into sharp focus.

The gains of implementing an MIS are often hard won. At the outset of their grant periods, sites expressed a willingness to set up monitoring systems to help them and the Foundation learn about project operations and whether and under what circumstances their services benefited families. Yet the first wave of sites to receive funding began by making only fitful progress, as other management tasks took priority. While FCD's budget did not permit full-scale technical assistance to the sites, FCD did engage the services of an evaluation-information system consulting firm which provided approximately five days of assistance to each site each year, although actual time spent at some sights was much greater.

Under the technical assistance arrangement, progress varied from site to site. The two sites with the quickest progress took approximately 6 months to have the system installed, to become somewhat accustomed to it, and to produce the first rudimentary report. After 2 years, another site was using the MIS to produce reports but only with some difficulty, and the MIS was not yet being used regularly as a management tool.

Planners should take into account the many factors that can affect MIS progress at community-based agencies. At the agencies examined in this report, physical conditions such as old wiring and inconvenient locations for scarce PCs obstructed progress. Learning and using the MIS was time consuming. For example, at the Head Start site, early logs showed the case manager was spending about 30% of her week on MIS-related tasks. The lack of continuous on-site technical assistance also delayed progress. The fact that, at the outset, consulting help was not available to the first wave of sites seemed to make a difference; the two sites where technical assistance coincided with start-up proceeded more smoothly.

Installing a system that not only produces monitoring data but also helps with routine tasks like generating mailing labels provides an incentive to make the transition to automation. This, however, is probably less important to success than the more intangible quality of commitment. To overcome the very real obstacles that undermine staff enthusiasm for MIS work—competing demands on time, discomfort with technology, density and obscurity of early MIS reports—managers had to sustain belief in the power of automated tracking to help them understand their interventions. At the Head Start site, this belief was instrumental in getting the project to a point where it could generate reports that let the site director speak with considerable confidence about parents' progress and the role of the case manager in this process. For family programs that provide the difficult-to-quantify services associated with case management and that must stretch resources to make room for MIS work, the level of effort required to achieve this kind of clarity is formidable. But, in a political climate marked by skepticism about the value of such services, the need to invest in this work can only grow.

The complete report on which this article is based, Theory meets practice: A report on six small-scale two-generation service projects, will be available from FCD later this year.

Susan Blank
Program Officer
Foundation for Child Development
345 East 46th Street
New York, NY, 10017
Tel: 212-697-3150

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