DES Director Tim Jeffries

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Arizona Department of Economic Security Director Tim Jeffries will give us an update on his agency, including the latest on employee issues.

Ted Simons: The State Department of economic security oversees Arizona's safety net things like food stamps, welfare benefits and care for the elderly. It's also been dealing with employee and security issues. Joining us is DES director Tim Jeffries. Good to have you back on.

Tim Jeffries: Good evening, Ted. Wonderful to be here.

Ted Simons: Thank you. Busy times for you. You've been on the job a little over a year.

Tim Jeffries: 15.5 months, 473 days to be precise.

Ted Simons: But who's counting, huh?

Tim Jeffries: I count every day.

Ted Simons: Your thoughts. You have been on the job a little over a year. Made quite a splash early on. Your thoughts over all on DES where it was, where it is, where it's going.

Tim Jeffries: The transformation has been phenomenal. When I arrived, turnover was rampant throughout the agency. It plummeted for an array of reasons. The engagement of the colleagues was at 60%. What I mean by that is 60% of the colleagues thought, okay, it's pretty good here. We have taken positive engagement up to 80%. We now lead all large agencies in positive engagement of our employees. In fact, if you strip out the DES positive engagement from the state survey score, we're 2-X positive engagement haves a advice all other state agency.

Ted Simons: What happened? What changed?

Tim Jeffries: DES is a people venture. I continue to resign myself to running a government agency. I'm running a multi-billion dollar nonprofit, a people venture. 7700 great people, many of which came from our lobbies, serving 2 million Arizonans every day. To that ends I have conducted my directorship unlike any predecessor. I have done over 400 town halls. I've visited 80 of our 110 sites, I have engaged in prolific YouTube and email communications, more than ever our colleagues are feeling connected. Not just to me but to the completely revamped reinvigorated leadership team.

Ted Simons: YouTube, town hall, visits, that's one thing, but getting these people -- getting the voice out there is another.

Tim Jeffries: Correct.

Ted Simons: Having action to those voices is yet another. How is that going? How is that working?

Tim Jeffries: One of the key things we have done is we ginned up a statewide community engagement function. I hired former Senator Leah Landrum Taylor, former minority leader of the Senate. She is a great pro, an electric person, lovely soul. We're reaching out to our Hispanic community, our African-American communities, tribal communities in a way that they have not been reached out to, and unfortunately, those communities are more often than not wracked with the greatest level of poverty.

Ted Simons: If we were to say this is the biggest change that has happened to the agency since you got there from what it was to what it is, what would that be? Hearing from the employees?

Tim Jeffries: That's a part of it. But it's not just hearing from me and it's not just me hearing them. If you look at the top three levels of leadership of the agency I'm not the top level. I just work for everyone. So my deputies, the assistant directors, deputy assistant directors has about 38 people. 34 of them are new. So it's been a radical transformation.

Ted Simons: Are you still in the process of weeding out old dead wood at the DES?

Tim Jeffries: You know, the brokenness of humanity unfolds every day. We have exited 344 folks since I arrived as director. 4.5% of the agency. In a transformation effort for an agency that everyone said had been broken for 43 years, 4.5% strikes me as modest.

Ted Simons: When you first came on a whole bunch of folks, I think 72, called them bullies, liars, bad actors. Are they all gone?

Tim Jeffries: Quite a few of them are gone. Sometimes bad hires are made. When bad hires are made things are addressed.

Ted Simons: I asked the question because there was a recent arrest of a worker assaulting another worker.

Tim Jeffries: Correct.

Ted Simons: That made headlines. That still exists but you're saying it's getting better. Give us an example. What's going on there?

Tim Jeffries: The things that people do not just at DES, but throughout our state. They can often flummox us. They are often surreal. During my directorship we have arrested six colleagues. They are the only six ever to be arrested because bad things in the past were tolerated. Swept under the rug or perhaps people who stole from the poor were simply released to the streets. One of the reasons colleagues are so engaged is because they understand accountability is not a word. It's foundational to our culture.

Ted Simons: As well we had a case of elderly abuse in Mesa regarding an 86-year-old. DES worker's mother-in-law living at her home. How did that happen and what happened thereafter?

Tim Jeffries: Key point from a parochial perspective that's a former DES employee. Upon us learning that a DES employee was involved we did the right things by way of the agency and the taxpayers.

Ted Simons: What other actions were taken? Apparently some other folks were reprimanded as well.

Tim Jeffries: Yes. Our adult protect of services group has engaged in incredible transformation. We brought backlogs down 70%. We coach people up so we can be better.

Ted Simons: When things happen, assaults, one employee assaulting another, these things when they happen, do you look at it as -- so many government agencies, so many leaders find excuses, find ways to talk around it. Say this is not this but let's look at the bright side. How do you deal with that so that you can prove to folks, the people that you serve, and you do serve the state, that you mean business? That this is not going to be tolerated and that you're not protecting or hiding anyone?

Tim Jeffries: To the government leaders that look away from such things I would say they are not leaders, they are bureaucrats and I would say shame on them. Stop it. Stop it. Because as taxpayers, we deserve far better. How do DES colleagues believe in they believe it's not just great words, it's great, decisive actions.

Ted Simons: Response from your employees. Originally, when we first had you on I told you we heard from some folks you may be hard to take. What response you getting these days?

Tim Jeffries: I haven't made this type of money for a long time. But I'll tell you, I have never been wealthier, I have never been more awash in transcendent riches. I have never had more people say they love me. I have never had more people pray for me. Beautiful things are happening in an agency where beautiful things should always happen because we serve the least. Beautiful things should always happen in DES, so we're endeavoring to embed the special culture of kindness, accountability and love so deep into the soul of this agency that no one can change it.

Ted Simons: Is it getting there? Are they buying into it?

Tim Jeffries: Absolutely. I have received over 8 though -- over 8200 emails from colleagues, 6,000 from different colleagues. In the early days when I started to receive emails people were in pain, suffering. They were angry. I would say over the past thousand emails, 20 at most issues.

Ted Simons: In a huge department that doesn't sound all that unusual. You tell me.

Tim Jeffries: 7700 people and engagement scores speak for themselves.

Ted Simons: What needs to be done? What is the biggest challenge now at DES?

Tim Jeffries: It's vast. It's immense. The bulk of our total funds come from the federal government and let's just say federal money is the most expensive money, the most inhibitive money that can ever come to the state. That's our money but we have to ship it over the Mississippi and hope it comes back to us. Dealing with the federal government and caricature that it is in actuality always an issue. But as it pertains to the state general fund that our governor, house, Senate entrust us with, we are being the best stewards I think we have ever been at this agency. The most significant general fund investment that our elected lead terse place in DES is for the care of the developmentally disabled. The department of child safety rightfully gets a lot of attention because they care for upwards to 18,000 vulnerable. But we still care for twice as many. We have 36,000 developmentally disabled that we're entrusted to engage and to support and care for and love. We're number one in the nation, number one, so we need to continue to be number one and we need to put so much space between us and other states that we care splendidly for the least of us.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the disabled, the elderly. There's a facility outside Coolidge that has made headlines. You want this closed, the state wants it closed but there is concern these folks are so frail they are not strong enough to be moved and some have lived their entire lives there. This is an older facility, which is one reason it needs to go according to the state. Some folks say maybe the state wants the land, maybe this is some sort of nefarious activity under foot. Why do these people have to leave the only home they have ever known?

Tim Jeffries: Our Coolidge property is a special I would say sacred place. It was commissioned in 1952 was the Arizona children's Colony. It was beautiful. In the late '70s it underwent a mission transition. It was no longer the children's Colony. So we're in the second mission transition. I'm not looking to close Coolidge. I'm looking for what that third great mission is. Will it involve the developmentally disabled? Perhaps. Maybe it involves wounded Warriors. Maybe it involves aged out foster kids. The Coolidge property is not going to close if I have anything to do with it, but the mission will transition.

Ted Simons: So those folks that are out there, the ones that are worried, the families of those who are worried that again some very, very fragile people are going to be moved and the life they have known, the only life they have known will change drastically in later years, you're saying it's up to you that won't happen?

Tim Jeffries: Let me clarify. The third mission of Coolidge will be different, very different than what it is today. Let's talk about the 66 beautiful souls that are there. Five are in small group homes. Six are in integrated care facilities. The five small group homes, the federal government has stated we must move. So we have no choice in that because we need the Medicaid, Medicare dollars for it. We are working with each family to place not just their loved ones in another loving care environment, but to keep these homes together because as much as the blood families or blood families, these residents of which I met occupied space with every one, they are family too. The folks in our integrated care facility, that's going to take us four to five years. We're not going to rush to move anyone that places any of these beautiful people in jeopardy. We're not. 80% of the families who we have met with understand where we're going. But change is tough. I respect it.

Ted Simons: So much more I want to talk to you about. You do love your job, don't you?

Tim Jeffries: Aside from my family and my Christian faith, this is the greatest love of my life.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much. We certainly do appreciate it.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Tim Jeffries: Arizona Department of Economic Security Director

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