A staff member stopping him in the hallway to share his excitement about a new idea he wants to try points in a small but encouraging way to the positive shift enveloping the human services division of San Benito County, California, director Jim Rydingsword says.

Like most counties in California, San Benito is still recovering from the recession. At the human services agency, jobs and programs had to be cut during the economic downturn. This left a trail of bitterness and hopelessness across both the team and broader community.

“We’re now having to work to overcome that,” says Jim, who joined the agency about a year ago. “We’re trying to bring hope back into the equation.”

One of the new possibilities the agency is working towards is providing a seamless service experience for clients.

Jim Rydingsword

Jim Rydingsword

The San Benito human services portfolio is a $25-million blend of welfare programs, child welfare services, public health, community action programs, work development programs and emergency services.

“The idea is to figure out how to bring those (elements) all together so that we present an individual approach to the people that come to us and want to have services,” Jim says.

This has already proven to be a challenge, with former rules and regulations in particular proving major hindrances. But Jim says he’s convinced it’s possible to improve customer service enormously in the next five to 10 years.

Integral to success will be team managers approaching the work from a systems perspective, considering not only what their programs have to offer but how they fit into the larger context of the agency’s other program offerings.

It will also be vital that team members work directly with community members to focus on co-creating customized and truly effective solutions for individuals and families.

And it will be helpful if those served begin to share the positive changes they have been able to attain with both the agency and the broader community.

“I can think back to a family that I worked with some years ago; they were in trouble with the law, with probation, with child welfare services, they were economically in poverty. And we took an approach with them where we said, ‘We’re going to bring everybody around one table and we’re going to talk about what’s going on in your life and how things are working and you’re going to be part of that conversation’,” Jim recalls.

The family was then invited to make a choice: become part of the problem or part of the solution going forward. With one voice, they said they wished to be part of the latter.

Jim later heard from the family that this approach — talking with the family as partners in identifying and co-creating solutions — was a turning point in their lives.

Imagine accomplishing that with every individual and family who engages the San Benito human services agency, Jim says.

“I think we have a better chance of doing that because our funding can be more mixed together and there is a greater expectation on the part of people that come to organizations like ours, that we’ll actually make an attempt to work with them better,” he adds.

A recent training session for local human services directors delivered by UC Davis affirmed the direction the San Benito agency is taking.

Facilitated by business coach and facilitator Charles Holmes, the session focused on how human services agencies can enable a broader community response to local issues.

For Jim, the discussion on systems thinking, as informed by Peter Senge’s book on the subject, The Fifth Discipline, was a useful reminder of ideas he’s considered constructive. “It was helpful to get re-grounded in that kind of thinking,” he says.

For the three managers who joined him from his team, the training has opened their eyes to how creating the space for conversations of a certain ilk – focusing on the future and possibilities, as well as encouraging ownership — might enable positive change both across their teams and in the broader community.

Related Stories:
A Human Services Agency that’s in the Business of Healing

California Human Services Directors Imagine New Ways of Working Within Their Communities

Writer: Michelle Strutzenberger

Editor’s Note: Click here to read about Axiom News’ partnership with Charles Holmes Consulting and the intent of the stories in this series.