Betty Johnston's a good listener. Knowledgeable and sympathetic, she spends hours on the telephone with people who want to tell her their problems, complain, ask for advice or just "get it off my chest." She's a patient woman and most of the time she can help.
That's her job. As one of two constituent services specialists for the Department of Social Services, she takes hundred of calls every month. Her specialty is entitlement and recovery services, so calls range from questions about public assistance eligibility to complaints about lost checks, queries about regulations and reports on rude personnel."In the average month," she said, "I get about 150 calls I need to do some type of follow-up on. Sometimes, I just have to explain policy to a caller, when someone hasn't taken the time to give him a clear understanding." More calls come in at the first of the month, she said.
"And a lot of times I get calls about a policy that doesn't make sense. `It's not fair,' they say to me, and I have to tell them that fair doesn't have a lot to do with anything. With all the federal guidelines, we sometimes have to come up with a Band-Aid approach. There are no simple answers for complicated questions."
Johnston has been with the department for 17 years. For the first nine she came up through the ranks as a caseworker, intake worker and supervisor. Her hands-on experience has given her the inside track in problem-solving between the department and the community, and also makes her a valuable liaison with community low-income advocate groups.
"I work with all the boards like the Community Action Program, Utahns Against Hunger and I think they're imperative for keeping us on our toes. What was it Walter Lippman said? `Everybody has to have the indispensable opposition?' Utah Issues, in particular, has a lot of credibility.
"The department has never been opposed to involving the community," Johnston said. "On the other hand, Norm (Angus, director of the department) is responsible when the chips are down. After he's listened to community input, he has to make the final decisions."
She said the most difficult part of her job is knowing who to contact with a problem. "I want to avoid the smoke blowers," she said. "I don't care that people make mistakes. But I need to work with people who will help me fix things without being defensive."
Many clients turn to her for help with problems caused because they didn't follow through on things and are now facing the consequences. Other times, they call because they didn't receive notification of changes. "When you live in poverty, you move a lot," she said. "Sometimes the mail doesn't catch up with them." Other people call when policies change.
Johnston works with all of them. If an explanation will solve the problem, great. If not, she'll go the extra step.