Though 2020 is just a few months away, Shawn Tessman keeps her eye on 2040 to stay ahead of the curve.
Tessman is the new director of Dane County's Department of Human Services, which provides a wide range of services from assisting pregnant mothers to helping seniors age in place. Tessman guides the far-reaching department while trying to keep it “nimble and rooted in good programming.”
“We know the federal government is going to throw new things at us. The state government's going to throw new things at us and certainly our community is going to grow and change,” Tessman said.
Tessman grew up in Madison and currently lives in Mt. Horeb, which she says informs her knowledge of the entire county. She took over for longtime Human Services Director Lynn Green April 1 and said she functions best when asked to give 120%.
Before her role as director, Tessman worked in the department for three years as economic assistance and work services administrator. She also previously worked for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Why did you pursue this job?
I wanted to make sure that whoever was put in this position was going to be able to stay on the right path and was going to be able to understand our community. My son, he's a senior in high school. As a mom, it was also sort of an opportunity to sort of throw my head into something big to help with my own personal transition.
I really wanted to just make sure that whoever had this responsibility was going to be good. I was just trying to, in my mind, raise the bar … to make sure that it was at least somebody who I felt like I could respond to as a visionary and somebody who would be a good leader.
How did your previous work in the county prepare you for this job?
Being with the county for three years previous I got to know some sense of the stakeholders, some sense of the dynamics with the community. Certainly getting an introduction to how to work with county board supervisors was all helpful. But really what I think was helpful is that I'm local. I sort of grew up in Madison, so I understand the culture of Madison and how the culture of Madison has changed and where it needs to continue to change, especially related to the programs that we administer in the department.
What does moving the department forward look like for you?
I'm really excited because we're just about to start a new five-year strategic planning process. This is something that's been sort of part of the department's routine process. I want my vision to be informed through this process. I want to engage with stakeholders. I want our staff to be the experts kind of driving the momentum internally. I feel like if you ever have sort of a top down vision from somebody who's not sort of connected organically, kind of within the organization and to the community, then it's not worth a lot.
Another key thing that the department's really focused on is youth in corrections and trying to make sure that our programming is as robust as it can be. We can try to engage these young offenders and to try to intervene early enough in their life, so that it doesn't put them on that pipeline where they continue into the criminal justice system.
Another big area of programmatic focus is there's always policy changes and program changes. One that has not received a lot of attention lately, but it's still out there, is the work requirements for Medicaid. The Department of Health Services still has to do something to implement that directive and has a huge impact potentially on how people can get connected to healthcare.
Another big area of focus is our work with the community. I've asked (new Deputy Director Astra Iheukumere) to sort of take a leadership role. We have an equity plan, and I think it's robust and I think it asks really important questions for us as a department in terms of how we're delivering services. But it's very much children, youth and families focus, which is a great place to start, but I want us to be more well rounded in that work.
The work of the Department of Human Services is extensive. As director, how do you steer that large ship?
One of the things that I'm trying to have conversations about internally with the team at the department is I'm deliberately not talking about our department programs and services in using the labels of the actual divisions on the organizational chart. As I talk about like what's in the department's budget request I talk about services to people who are vulnerable. I talk about services to promote equity and social justice. And I talk about ways that we're trying to build our own capacity as a department. I'm trying to model a different way of thinking about how we do that.
Our staff certainly feel that when we're working with a family or working with a community, our touch blends — and it should — those sort of organizational boxes. Because we're so big and we're so vast, I'm trying to have us be more mindful about thinking about populations or areas of functional alignment as opposed to thinking about it through the lens of how the department is actually organized on paper.
How did the Sept. 11 budget hearing go?
Budget hearings are always a really good way to understand what's sort of in the hearts and minds of the people that we serve.
What rose to the top: A lot of people focusing on our youth in corrections and tried to develop more mentoring opportunities and other ways to engage that population. There’s a physical department restructure that's happening that's going to change how services are being provided in Stoughton. We heard a lot from people in Stoughton who wanted to make sure that the department's commitment to services on the ground stayed robust. The Area Agency on Aging, they are always very well informed. They're always very deliberate and robust and talking about what they think their priorities were.
What are you hoping to see out of Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s 2020 executive budget, which is expected Oct. 1?
He, as an elected leader, has a bigger picture vision for human services. The beautiful thing about working for the county executive is he's really, really engaged in my department. There's been a number of meetings that he's asked me to help set up with my frontline direct staff. He'll sit with them for a couple of hours and just have open ended conversations about what's working well, what do you need, what are you hearing. I know that he's doing that because he wants to be able to help provide solutions.
What fuels your passion for public service?
I've been in public service my whole career. When I graduated from UW-Madison in political science and my last semester I had an opportunity to do an internship with the legislature. I happened to be lucky enough to get paired up with a state representative, Doris Hanson, a former Department of Administration secretary under Tony Earl, and she really opened my eyes to the value and the importance of public service and how important it was, especially for women, to be involved.
I was raised by a young, single mom. In hindsight, as an adult, I understand now better sort of the struggles that she went through.
Those two things, understanding how important it is to be involved in public service and understanding the role of human services-related programs, really fuels me to be in this work.
The other thing I would say is I love watching people grow professionally. That's the fun part about being a leader is in cultivating your team and challenging your team and then watching them succeed in whatever way that looks.
Those are three things that I would say gets me up in the morning.