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Who should the agency’s clients be?

The question is who clients should be and not who they are. If establishing a new agency eco system or working with an existing system, agency clients are limited to people who should be agency clients. If this is not managed carefully, people become clients who only more or less meet the criteria for being clients. Over time, this results in subtle shifts in both the client criteria and in the services themselves. The former happens because the criteria expand to include everyone who is receiving services. The latter happens because Providers tend to adjust the services to better fit the people actually receiving them. The agency then slips incrementally toward being all things to all people. At a minimum, its mission becomes blurred and correspondingly ill defined.

It is at least tempting and perhaps human nature to assume our vision of who the agency’s clients should be is the right vision. We then further assume others associated with the agency share our vision. Unfortunately, our vision is not necessarily the right vision and it is certainly not true everyone agrees with us. The likelihood is we are mostly right and other people mostly agree with us. This leaves a significant gray area where the blurring of criteria and shifts in services happen. As time goes on, this cumulative effect within the gray area is potentially substantial.

Managing this combined client and services drift starts with establishing a clear reference point explicitly defining who agency clients should be. The list of criteria may be short or more extensive. Nonetheless, there is a list and clients of the agency should conform to the criteria on the list. The challenge is to establish the right list for the particular agency. Doing this correctly is not simple, however.

The key here is understanding the criteria for being an agency client have already been developed and should not be casually or inadvertently changed. This is true both for new agencies and for more mature agencies. Recall the Helping Triangle and how the agency comes into existence. The Initiators initially identify the people for whom the agency is developed. The Authorizers then provide the necessary auspices and authorization for the agency. This authorization is on behalf of the potential clients identified by the Initiators. The Implementers, in turn, accept this authorization and proceed to develop the agency. Who the clients should be is decided before establishing the human services agency itself.

To determine who agency clients should be, focus on the Helping Triangle. From point “0” within the Triangle, start with 0-1 leadership connections with Initiators as illustrated in Figure 2E. Ask Initiators who the agency should help, who should receive agency services. The goal here is to understand who they think the agency’s potential clients are. The perspectives of the Initiators can be accessed through face-to-face conversations, a review of existing documents, focus groups, and so on. The criteria they have in mind are discoverable if we are persistent.

With the Initiators’ list of criteria in mind, repeat the process using 0-B leadership connections with the Authorizers. The result is two lists that may or may not completely match, i.e., the Initiator list and the Authorizer list. Continuing the process through other leadership connections generates additional lists, letting us know who our other stakeholders think the agency’s clients should be. There is likely to be a high level of consensus on most, but not all, elements on the various lists.

Review the various lists and eliminate those elements reflecting a moderate to low consensus. This leaves a working set of criteria most stakeholders support. Take this criteria set back to the Authorizers to verify proceeding with those criteria does not negatively affect authorization. Assuming continuing authorization is forthcoming, proceed with establishing the agency itself, clearly knowing who the agency’s clients should be. – The activities discussed here are the Leadership Team’s responsibility.

Please do not overlook the fact some stakeholders are already disappointed in the process and, to some extent, with the agency itself. There is no plan for the agency to serve some people whom they think it should serve. Additionally, the agency plans to serve some people they think it should not serve. This stakeholder dissonance may range from trivial to significant, but cannot be altogether avoided. It is an unavoidable dynamic when establishing an agency eco system. Just as a human services agency cannot be all things to all people, it cannot keep every stakeholder happy every time. The challenge is to manage the dissonance so as to minimize its immediate and ongoing, negative effect.

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