Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, October 18, 2010

Elliott uses policy skills to lead child welfare reform


John Elliott

Alum seeks to strengthen collaboration with school

As alum John Elliott looks for ways Wisconsin counties can collaborate on child welfare services, he is keeping an eye out for opportunities in which DCF can work more with the La Follette School.

He and professor Maria Cancian are exploring possibilities, having started at DCF the same week in June. Cancian is spending the summer and fall at DCF thanks to a fellowship she won from the William T. Grant Foundation.

One collaboration has proven valuable to DCF, a 2009 workshop report on racial disparities in the Wisconsin child welfare system, Elliott says. "The initial analysis the students did has gone a long way in informing discussions about what needs to be done to resolve racial disproportionality in the system."

La Follette School students in earlier years have completed research for the Department of Health and Family Services, which was reorganized in 2008 to become the Department of Health Services and to create DCF.


Maria Cancian 

Solid skills in strategic planning, process improvement and program management are a great way to become an expert in a variety of public policy arenas, John Elliott finds.

The 1989 grad is back in the public sector after an eight-year stint in the private sector leading the Future of Child Welfare Initiative as a senior policy advisor to the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. He started in the position in June 2010.

Child welfare services and outcomes vary widely in Wisconsin, Elliott notes,. "The goal is better outcomes for families and children through increased consistency in child protective services performance and a new governance and funding infrastructure that is sustainable," he says. "Everyone should have access to the same basic services, and we need to emphasize prevention. The state can help facilitate collaboration and innovation in child welfare."

Outside work, Elliott has been applying his collaboration skills as he and others form a non-profit education foundation to establish programs for the Mount Horeb Area school district, where his two children are in first and fifth grade. The group is raising funds to provide more reading-level books for kindergarten through second grade; train volunteers to be tutors to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders; establish a farm-to-school program in which middle school students learn the science, economics and other factors of farming; and offer project learning opportunities, such as ropes courses, for high school students.

After graduating from La Follette, Elliott worked at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, then joined the quality improvement and strategic planning office at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He helped the registrar's office reconfigure its business processes as it installed a new registration system. He helped the business school refine its admissions process for graduate students.

Elliott joined CUNA Mutual Group in 2002. There he helped to transform the corporation's strategic plan into an actionable plan by using the balanced scorecard methodology, working with the executive team. He helped to devise a system to establish goals to motivate employees and then measure results to ensure projects were aligned with CUNA's desired ends. "We had to take the strategic plan and make it real," he says. "Just making a plan is a waste of time."

When CUNA cut back its workforce, Elliott set up shop as a consultant to Dean Health Plan, helping it create an customer experience strategy for working with their customers. He provided project management support for their administration infrastructure project called Armor. He used his project management, planning and analysis skills while immersing himself in health care. "The individual facets of a business' or an agency's mission, you learn that on the job," Elliott says, "but how I organize my work and manage projects, those skills — which I first tested at La Follette — are transferrable. I learned about CUNA's credit union products then I learned about health care."

A big difference, Elliott says, between CUNA and DCF is that CUNA focused on customers, while the DCF position is one step removed from the children and families the child welfare system serves.

To identify successful programs and cooperative ventures in child welfare, Elliott is talking with stakeholders around the state. "I am working with county human service directors, social workers, advocacy groups, higher education, non-profits and private providers," Elliott says. The complexity of the relationships among individual groups is an intriguing challenge to sort out as he applies his experience in planning and program management.

"Child welfare is very complex, and I'm learning the basic processes of the system as I talk with people around the state," Elliott adds. "Sometimes it helps by being an outsider, you can ask why something is the way it is, something that people who are more entrenched may not see."

Like other states, Wisconsin supervises child welfare at the state level, but counties administer their own programs. However, federal funding mechanisms treat Wisconsin as if it had a state-administered program, and the state's decentralized approach makes achieving overall federal improvement goals challenging. The state reform initiative's emphasis on improved quality and consistency of services and outcomes should help rectify the problem by promoting collaboration, Elliott says. "If you don't collaborate, you don't get anything done."