2004 Citizen Services

Margaret Washnitzer

Pioneered new performance-focused management principles that have revolutionized the way that we deliver aid to social service providers and low-income families.

The old adage goes, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Dr. Margaret J. Washnitzer is teaching people how to fish.

The War on Poverty dramatically reduced poverty in the United States. But with one in five American children living in poverty today, there is clearly still more work to be done.

One of the keys to the successes of the War on Poverty was a national network of about 1,000 grassroots community action agencies, but this network had seen its effectiveness and activity wane since the 60s. As the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of State Assistance, Dr. Washnitzer sought to revitalize this network as a way to reduce poverty further in the new millennium. The key to her strategy: To revise the way that these service providers measured success.

Dr. Washnitzer thought that the best way to determine if these programs were working was to look at the recipients of the services and see what they did after they got those services. Traditionally, community action groups measured their effectiveness by the number of people to whom they provided services. In other words, it was as if people were coming into a clinic because they had headaches, and they were measuring the effectiveness of services by how many aspirin tablets were given away. Now they would measure how many headaches disappeared.

The impact of this policy is three-fold. First, it encourages service providers to reassert their missions of helping people and communities rise out of poverty. Second, it provides a customer-centered rationale for coordinating services from various funding sources that addresses the multiple causes and conditions of poverty. And third, it gives added purpose to tracking and reporting improvement among families and communities being served.

As a result of Dr. Washnitzer’s reforms, community action agencies were able to report the following data about low-income families in 2001 and 2002.

  • 70,683 low-income individuals gained employment with the help of community action.
  • 48,558 saw an increase in income.
  • 41,315 formal, working collaborations were created by community action agencies with other service providers.
  • 811,484 senior citizens and individuals sustained “independent living” as a result of community action assistance.

This information will serve as a critical benchmark as the country moves forward in our efforts to combat poverty. We will be able to get a sense of what we are doing well and areas where we need to do a better job. We will also be able to better identify those service providers who have enjoyed the most success and replicate their best practices.

These performance-focused management principles are helping to shift the national paradigm of how we lift people out of poverty. But this policy shift was not mandated by law. It was driven by Dr. Washnitzer, a 29-year veteran of the federal civil service, who simply wants to be sure that every American knows how to fish. With the help of public servants like her, we might eventually win the War on Poverty after all.