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Keeping Focus on the Humans at the Heart of Human Services


After 23 years in government John Eller, the director of Social Services in Mecklenburg County, will leave his government job in mid-December. A lot of changes have occurred in his years in county government, and he has a wide variety of predictions, concerns and counsel for the changes that public health and human service agencies like his will face in future years.


We talked with him this fall while we were researching our future of government jobs series for Route Fifty.


The issues he raised included the following:


The need to preserve the lessons learned during the pandemic about benefit program flexibility:


Eller has watched the federal drive to unwind pandemic-era human service waivers with dismay.


“It just baffles me that we’re talking about going back to the old way, versus looking for ways to continue to innovate what we started with the flexibilities we got during the pandemic,” he says. He cites a system that is audit heavy and risk adverse with confusing, inconsistent and repetitive requirements that rob clients of dignity and create numerous barriers to underemployed individuals who may lack transportation and time due to work schedules.






The importance of emphasizing human interaction even as more technology options emerge:


While digital skills will inevitably increase in value, he warns of the danger of losing the softer skills that are needed to work with human service customers. “The customer must remain at the heart of the mission and vision,” he says.


“The shift into a technology-driven world will impact both our staff and our customers. We value a customer-centric scenario. We value interaction and the more online you go, the less interaction you have. As public human services agencies look to be more strategic, I think they’re going to have to figure out what can, and should, be done online and what doesn’t have to be. We’re going to see this tug of war, this push and pull between the need to be more technology driven, compared to the need to balance the needs of our customers and staff.”


To increase the focus on more – and not less – human interaction, Mecklenburg County leadership has a philosophy dubbed “Bringing Mecklenburg to You,” which locates Community Resource Centers that combine public and private shared services “in a seamless way” in targeted geographic locations throughout the county. “Staff can be strategically placed in geographic locations to provide services instead of working from one stationary centralized building so that services are closer to each community” – a change that will also provide a stronger sense of trust with residents.


The drive to alter past human resource practices that adversely affect hiring


“In order to remain competitive, we’ve got to figure out what the needs of our staff are,” he says. “The decisions about telework and flexible work schedules will be critical to attract someone who can choose this agency or another.”

Eller recognizes the complexities of dealing with a remote or hybrid workplace in which employees have multiple different preferences. At the same time, he knows that workplace flexibility is important to applicants and recognizes that a job candidate’s decision to accept or turn down a job offer is often contingent on this factor. “The first thing that job applicants ask is about that detail. How many days will I have to come in the office? That’s changed everything,” he says.


Eller also sees a need to lower current minimum qualifications that prevent hiring community college or college graduates because they lack several years of experience. That’s led to Mecklenburg County partnering with local universities and community colleges to allow recent graduates to qualify for public human services programs without previously required years of experience.


A focus on retention and building career supports for the staff


Like many other individuals we interviewed for our future of government jobs series in Route Fifty, Eller sees a significant benefit in the establishment of career ladders that provide promotions and salary increases based on successfully completing training that broadens skills. In fact, he introduced a new career ladder approach in the Department of Social Services this fall, supported by county leadership. Promotion, in a career ladder system, doesn’t require employees to wait for a job to open or require staff to compete with each other for limited open positions. It depends instead on training and acquiring new knowledge. “The way we look at promoting people is going to change,” he says.


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