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North Dakota Department of Human Services redesign 'an ongoing process'

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Christopher Jones (left) executive director of North Dakota Human Services, answers questions with Sarah Stolt, transformation manager of the department. (Adam Kurtz/ Grand Forks Herald)
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Changes at the North Dakota Department of Human Services are underway, and some already have met with success, according to agency leaders who visited Grand Forks last week.

The changes — ranging from staffing ratios to creation of "human service zones" —are part of an effort to rethink and redesign the department.

“I’ll tell you that we have just started to graze the surface,” Transformation Manager Sara Stolt said. “This is an ongoing process. Our redesign is not a one-and-done. We will be constantly looking at every program on an ongoing basis to say ‘how can we improve this?’”

Stolt, DHS Executive Director Christopher Jones and Pamela Stagness, director of the department’s Behavioral Health Division, last week spoke to an audience of more than 50 service providers, state legislators and members of the community at the CanadInn in Grand Forks, discussing changes to the department triggered by recent legislation.

On the regulatory side, the creation of up to 19 “human service zones” is well under way, though not completely finalized, according to Jones. The creation of the zones is meant to provide consistent social services to residents across North Dakota, as well as expand access points for services.


“We are removing boundaries …” Stolt said of the redesign. “We are taking 53 counties, 47 social services offices, and creating 19 zones, but as a client, I can now go anywhere for services.”

That means clients are not bound to visit a social service center only in the county in which they reside.

The process began in 2017, with Senate bill 2206, which began as a property tax bill. The cost of funding county social services was tied to property tax income, which meant the different tax bases in each county led to inconsistent services. The social services redesign eliminates these inconsistencies by funding these programs through the state.

The redesign also seeks to expand the delivery of services beyond the brick-and-mortar social service location, to such places as schools, jails and public health offices. It's an effort to improve client outcomes.

“We’re bringing services to people where they are located, when they need them,” said Stolt.

Social Services in North Dakota include child and family services, such as foster care, child protective services and investigating child abuse allegations. Services for adults are also included, such as assistance for elderly and disabled people.

A large part of the redesign extends to changing the culture of the department to being client-focused.

“We exist to serve the client,” said Jones. “We don’t exist as an employment agency, we don’t exist as providing dollars to other providers. To be successful we have to be focused on how we ensure that the services that are being provided are quality and effective to meeting the mission of DHS.”


According to Stolt, the overall trend of the department is tending toward the creation of specialty teams, such as child care licensing, home and community-based services, case management, eligibility determination for long term care and the creation of a quality control team.

The creation of specialty teams allows for department workers to focus on one area, which gives the department the ability to move staff to priority areas, without eliminating positions.

“A perfect example is our CPS redesign.” said Stolt. “We found that … we had four people who were covering child protection supervisor duties, but our staffing ratio really only required one.”

Some changes in the department have met with success already. Fingerprint-based background checks for child care providers previously took more than 25 days to complete, and the paperwork to do so often resulted in errors. With the redesign, the average background check took six to eight days, and errors were reduced to 10% on forms.

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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