|Vol. 7, Nos. 1 & 2||
On Delivery of Legal Assistance to Older Persons
Focus on Michigan:
New Statewide Legal Assistance Reporting System
Interview with Mark Manrique, MI Legal Services Developer
Under the leadership of Michigan's Legal Services Developer, Mark Manrique, a specially organized Legal Assistance Reporting Work Group has successfully developed and recently implemented a new statewide reporting system for Title IIIB legal assistance. The new reporting system is the culmination of a three- year effort to reform and standardize Michigan's reporting practices. The following is a brief interview with Mr. Manrique.
Q: Why did Michigan develop a uniform statewide reporting system for Title IIIB legal assistance?
A: Problems with the consistency of reporting practices was the major problem Michigan's Reporting Work Group wanted to address. Before our new reporting system was implemented, the value of reporting in our state was questionable. While we did have reporting standards, many provisions, such as units of service and unduplicated client count, were subject to a large degree of interpretation, leading to inconsistent reporting practices by legal providers. Inconsistent reporting practices produced statistics of questionable validity and reliability. In other words, our reporting system provided monitoring agencies with numbers that meant very little, thus precluding informed, careful planning and tracking of legal program activities both at the state and local levels. Furthermore, the unreliability of numbers in Michigan, and in other states, meant that national reporting figures were essentially meaningless.
Q: What are the benefits of Michigan's new reporting system?
A: Michigan's Reporting Work Group has developed a new set of reporting forms to be filled out and submitted by all Title IIIB legal assistance providers on a quarterly basis. The new reporting forms collect all of the data required by AoA's new State Program Report (SPR), as well as detailed information about the types of legal assistance cases handled, levels at which case closure takes place (e.g., information and referral, brief service, administrative court action), numbers of frail or socially needy clients, client age groups, community education, and descriptive narrative information. The forms include standardized definitions of "unit of service," "unduplicated clients," "frail/socially needy," and other key terms, to ensure reporting consistency across providers. The forms also adopted the Legal Services Corporation's (LSC) case coding scheme to minimize nonconformance with the LSC reporting requirements of many of our providers.
The data collected is useful to AAAs in a number of ways. The information will clearly show, for example, the types of cases being handled by providers, the different types of services performed (advice, litigation, etc.), outreach activities, and other descriptive information. Because it demonstrates whether priority issues are being addressed and whether certain target populations are being reached, AAAs can evaluate a programs' success in targeting and outreach. In addition, it allows state and area agencies to plan and rethink delivery issues in a more informed way.
Legal programs also want to provide this information, because it gives the AAAs a better picture of the kind of work providers are performing than straight units of service would give. The forms also give providers an opportunity to account for what would otherwise seem like an inadequate rate of service provision. For instance, if a program's numbers are low in any given quarter, the provider can demonstrate that this is the result of spending a significant amount of time doing "impact" work that will positively affect a large number of people, including many who are not formally clients.
As the legal services developer, I like the new reporting system because I can quickly determine what populations are being served, what issues are being addressed, and the level of service delivery. I can also use it to troubleshoot issues developing around the state which may require legislative attention or policy interpretation. Because federal requirements are so minimal, that information alone was not very useful. The new narrative portion of our report gives me a good indication of what the providers are doing. For instance, if a provider is addressing mostly non-priority issues, this is easily detectable with our reporting system. The developer and AAAs can then communicate with the legal provider and provide assistance with making needed changes.
Q: What is the most significant change found in the new reporting system?
A: The narrative section is definitely the most useful addition to the reporting system. This section gives the provider an opportunity to highlight significant cases, outreach performed, publications, education efforts. On the flip side, it keeps the legal services developer and AAAs current in terms of staffing changes. If there is any kind of problem, the narrative information tells us about it and gives us an opportunity to help fix the problem, or at least understand the reasons why, for example, certain levels of service are not being reached.
Q: Did you encounter resistance in the implementation of the new reporting system?
A: Anyone trying to do this will encounter some resistance. However, if the legal services developer works closely with the providers and area agencies on aging, asks for their input, and makes the reporting process as simple as possible, providers and AAAs will see the value of the new system and agree to use it. Michigan has achieved 100% cooperation with and participation in the new reporting system. Legal providers value the system because it helps to provides a true reflection of what their programs accomplish. It provides them with an opportunity to toot their own horns, particularly through the narrative; they were not able to do that before. We clearly conveyed to all involved that the reporting forms were not designed as a punitive tool. Rather, they are to be used to share strengths, identify weak spots, and provide an opportunity to address those weak spots.
Q: How should states interested in developing new legal assistance reporting systems proceed?
A: Based on what we did in Michigan, I recommend that other legal services developers use the following outline as a general guide:
- Begin with fairly good idea of what you want the new reporting system to capture and how you want it to be structured.
- Survey all legal assistance providers and AAAs for reporting systems and forms currently in use.
- Choose the best features of the various reporting forms and systems, and use these to develop one set of reporting forms and one system.
- Bring together a task force made up of individuals from the groups involved with reporting: legal services providers and AAAs. Be sure to include individuals from legal programs who are responsible for actually collecting and processing the data (e.g., administrative assistants or office managers).
- As a group, review past reporting practices, generate ideas, come to a consensus on what the new reporting system should accomplish, and draft new reporting forms.
- Have preselected pilot sites use the new system for a period of time.
- Continue to meet regularly as a task force, responding to problems that emerge, and modifying the system as needed.
- Throughout the pilot period, consistently ask for feedback from ALL legal services providers and AAAs, and make sure they understand the purpose of the reporting system. These groups will be more inclined to implement the new system if they have had an opportunity for comment during its development .
- Do statewide implementation of the new reporting system.
Q: Do you have any closing remarks or suggestions?
A: I recommend that the reporting task force continue to meet, review the forms and data collected, and address issues and problems that may arise after implementation. In addition, the task force can become the core of a spin-off group that looks at changes needed in the delivery of legal services. The reporting task force will have the background necessary to look critically at these issues and help develop new delivery models.
If you have other questions about the development of a statewide legal assistance reporting system, you are invited to contact Mark Manrique: Legal Services Developer, Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, P.O. Box 30026, Lansing, MI 48909; Ph: (517) 373-4076.
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