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Empowering Communities: A Conversation with Commissioner Karen Marcum on Value and Ditching the Status Quo

Commissioner Karen Marcum brings a wealth of experience and a steadfast commitment to her role as the head of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services (DSS). With a background in labor and industrial relations, Marcum has dedicated herself to serving the community and addressing the challenges facing DSS. She is focused on executing a plan of action to address recent investigations into the department, recognizing the importance of involving staff in decision-making processes. Marcum understands the complexities of leading a social services agency and acknowledges the significance of maintaining high staff morale. Her hands-on approach and dedication to fostering collaboration within the department demonstrate her readiness to tackle the responsibilities of her role head-on. With her leadership, Marcum is poised to make a positive impact on the Jefferson County community and the individuals served by DSS.

Interview with Karen Marcum

With her passion for encouragement and her rejection of the status quo, Commissioner Marcum understands the challenges her community faces and is ready to lead the way to a brighter future in the health and human services (HHS) sector. Join us as we delve into an insightful conversation with Commissioner Karen Marcum, exploring her vision for the future of Jefferson County DSS and her unwavering commitment to the greater good.

What inspired you to pursue a career in social services, and what motivated you to take on leadership roles within your respective counties?

Raised from infancy to school age by a single mother (losing my father tragically to a brain tumor), I have been surrounded by strong, female role models my entire life. Additionally, the woman I was so very lucky to call my mother was a nurse by trade and one of the most caring and compassionate women you would ever come to know. She is what began my life-long mission to nurture the relationships in my life and to assist anyone in need when I was able, sometimes without even knowing it. I believe that is what led me to the career I have today.

Initially, my motivation to take on leadership roles within JCDSS was more internal. I challenged myself and continued in my learning so that I might add value, provide feedback, and support ongoing communication [RT1] to the team. Eventually, the internal motivation turned to a determination to contribute toward the greater good, creating more effective and efficient delivery of services to the community we serve. I value the power that encouragement has to motivate teams and wanted to be a part of it. I have never been one to sit back and settle for the status quo.

What strategies have you employed to address challenges such as staffing shortages, budget constraints, or unexpected crises like the COVID-19 pandemic?

The strategies I have used include: Mobile technology for child welfare staff, remote work options, and employing retired county employees as true temp workers to fill vacancies.

With your extensive experience in the field, what do you consider to be the most pressing issue facing social services today, and how do you propose addressing it?

The most pressing issue facing social services today is by far the increase in demands placed upon us by state agencies coupled with the staffing crisis/lack of adequately trained staff. Innovative/creative solutions are needed to address this issue, or the problems will continue to worsen and become insurmountable. The use of AI to address workforce challenges is necessary.

In what ways do you believe technology and innovation can further enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of social services delivery in your county?

It will streamline our service delivery by automating and standardizing certain tasks, reducing errors and ensuring consistency and timeliness. It will provide real-time data to help us monitor and measure key performance indicators as well as customer feedback. It will provide operational effectiveness, allowing humans to do work designed for humans (determining eligibility) while AI does the more mundane/repetitive/time-consuming tasks.

What specific challenges or opportunities within the realm of healthcare and human services (HHS) prompted you to consider integrating AI?

Social service agencies across the state have been facing the same, complex issues—the work is becoming more complex and abundant, and the workforce is changing and diminishing. These challenges are not new but have been compounded by the global COVID-19 pandemic, where many companies have turned to fully remote work options and individuals have chosen work-from-home as their desired path. As a social service agency, we are community based and must be engaged with our customers. With no end in sight to these workforce challenges, we have engaged in internal practice shifts to meet these challenges as we are able. However, gone are the days of “we have always done it that way.” It seems the public’s technological advances are growing at a much faster rate than that of a government agency. With that reality comes the need for us to embrace technology, or risk succumbing to the negative public perception of a social service agency and the lag in the provision of necessary services to our customers.  Staff and our community deserve some forward-thinking logic, and it is much better to be the leader than a follower when it comes to a new initiative, in my humble opinion. To quote Sean-Paul Thomas, “It is much better to try and fail then never to have tried at all.”

What legacy do you hope to leave behind in terms of your impact on the community and the social services sector?

I hope they say: She always did her best, she served this county with insight, respect, and dignity and that is all we could ask. “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we catch excellence.” —Vince Lombardi.


Commissioner Karen Marcum’s leadership exemplifies a commitment to innovation, collaboration, and community engagement. Through her dedicated efforts, she has tackled complex challenges within the Jefferson County DSS, integrating technology and fostering teamwork to enhance service delivery. Her proactive approach in addressing staffing shortages, budget constraints, and the increased demands of social services highlights her determination to move beyond the status quo. By leveraging AI and other technological advancements, Marcum is paving the way for a more efficient and effective social services sector. Her vision and unwavering commitment to the greater good ensure a brighter future for Jefferson County, leaving a legacy of excellence and resilience in public service.



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