Utah’s use of roughly $75 million in federal funding for needy families lacks oversight and performance standards, according a legislative audit released Monday.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor General reviewed state contracts under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and found that many of the programs selected for funding appeared to have been chosen arbitrarily, and without defined goals or a standard for evaluating success or failure.
“It is generally recognized that spending on case management is important,” the audit states. “Our concern is with [the Department of Workforce Services’] inability to adequately document its effectiveness.”
Roughly a third of Utah’s funding is used to employ counselors, who work with low-income families on achieving self-sufficiency. But those cases, overseen by Workforce Services, are tracked based on the ability of agency counselors to close a case when the family no longer receives assistance.
Auditors say that doesn’t account for the same family returning later for assistance, which can’t legitimately be labeled a success.
“We reviewed recidivism data, which indicated that positive case closures are not very meaningful in terms of demonstrating family self-sufficiency,” the audit states. “The number of families returning to state assistance is nearly the same, regardless of a positive or a negative case closure.”
At a hearing at the state Capitol on Monday, Department of Workforce Services Executive Director Jon Pierpont committed to a swift response on the audit’s recommendations.
“If you know me, we’ll get right after it,” Pierpont said. “These won’t be solved in 18 months. They’ll be solved in, like, 18 days.”
DWS was credited in the audit for improving its budget and financial controls in recent years, including the hiring of new finance staff and the implementation of new politics and reporting standards. The audit also describes Utah’s TANF programs as among the top-performing in the nation.
But 11 out of the 24 contracts reviewed by auditors did not include the basic rationale for why TANF funding was being awarded, and DWS “struggled to clearly identify programs that receive TANF funding."
“We commend DWS for its achievements,” the audit states, "but more can be done to improve outcomes for families.”
Auditors issued a series of recommendations, including that DWS track assistance recidivism and post-employment outcomes, and that contracts approved for funding include specific goals related to receipt of assistance.
Members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee responded positively to the department’s current leadership. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, complimented Pierpont for the work he and his staff has done on Operation Rio Grande, a multipronged law enforcement and state assistance effort to combat homelessness in Salt Lake City.
The work of Pierpont and DWS related to the operation, Hughes said, goes “above and beyond” what is typically asked of Utah’s department heads and state agencies.
“You have done an incredible job,” Hughes said, “even outside of your normal scope and mission.”
Pierpont told lawmakers his department agrees with auditors' recommendations, and that corrective action has or will be taken regarding the audit’s findings.
“We’re committed to the program,” Pierpont said. "As you know, improvements can always be made.”