WILLMAR -- For one day, each Kandiyohi County Commissioner had a chance to see what it feels like to go the desk at the Family Services Department, fill out a form asking for assistance and make an appointment with a case worker.
On that same day, they got to feel the heavy weight that county social workers experience when they review cases of potential abuse of children or vulnerable adults.
They also witnessed the complicated maze of regulations and endless state-mandated paperwork social workers complete for multiple programs, like screening elders for long-term care assistance and determining who pays for nursing home stays.
"Wow. That was quite a day," one of the commissioners told Jay Kieft, Kandiyohi County Family Services director.
Over the last two months, all five commissioners spent an individualized day in the Family Services Department shadowing the case workers and department heads. They also walked in the shoes of a county resident who needs assistance.
At the end of each day Kieft met with the commissioner to get their gut reactions. Even though they were well-acquainted with the family service programs and the work county employees do, they experienced some surprises that brought them to the heart of the mission.
They told Kieft that the process of applying for assistance "is not really easy," people "don't just stop in and get a check" and that "the perception that the Health and Human Services building is just a place for handouts is wrong."
After his experience, Commissioner Richard Falk confessed he "must live a sheltered life."
The commissioners were also deeply impressed by the "breadth of knowledge" the county workers had and how "respectful" they were to everyone who walked through the doors. They also noticed the enthusiasm of the staff and said their "excitement about the mission is evident."
Seeing the county commissioners in their department also had a huge, positive impact on the employees, Kieft said. "Our staff really feels validated by their attention," he said, and that has "lifted up" the mission of the department even higher.
Kieft said he hopes that giving the commissioners a taste of the day-to-day events in the Family Services Department will help them make decisions in the future about programs. The county commissioners are "ambassadors" and Kieft has encouraged them to take the family services message to the public.
"They're the best tie to the community," he said. "They're leaders. People go to them and listen to them when they speak."
Falk said he found the exercise so valuable that the commissioners should have similar shadow experiences with other county departments.