Gov. Tim Walz has ordered a review of a troubled state hiring program for people with disabilities amid mounting reports that the program has foundered because of mismanagement, lack of training and poor leadership.

In a statement issued this week, the state agency that oversees hiring said it will launch an independent evaluation "to identify concrete strategies" to improve the administration of the Connect 700 program, a state program that gives people with disabilities early preference during the hiring process for hundreds of jobs across state government. Once hailed as innovative, the hiring program has fallen short of expectations and has come under criticism for being rolled out inconsistently across state agencies.

The review will include gathering input from current and past participants in the Connect 700 program, as well as consulting with state agencies and disability advocacy groups, said Kristin Batson, human resources systems director at the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) agency, in a written statement. "We are committed to better meeting the needs of employees with disabilities," she said.

Launched in 2016 by former Gov. Mark Dayton, the Connect 700 program was the centerpiece of his administration's effort to breathe life into Minnesota's lackluster efforts to improve hiring of people with disabilities in state government. Before Dayton took office, a number of state agencies had stopped tracking the hiring and recruitment of people with disabilities. Agencies had affirmative action plans, but they lacked specific disability employment goals. As a result, the rate of workers with disabilities in state government plunged from 10% in 1999 to less than 4% in 2013.

The Connect 700 program was designed to help reverse that trend by leveling the playing field for people with a wide range of disabilities who often struggle to compete for sought-after state jobs. Applicants with developmental disabilities or neurological disorders, such as autism, may have more difficulty processing questions in face-to-face job interviews, and they may appear nervous or reluctant to make eye contact, thus reducing their chances when competing against other job candidates, disability advocates maintain.

Connect 700 enabled certain people to skip the typical, competitive interviewing process, provided they met the minimum job requirements and could demonstrate their ability to perform the tasks by working up to 700 hours on the job.

"The program was groundbreaking in that it recognized that we live in an 'ableist' society," said Kristin Burgess, who is director of accessibility resources at Metropolitan State University and has a disability from a spinal cord injury. "There is often a perception that a person who does not process information as quickly is less qualified, even though that person may be incredibly well qualified."

Ultimately, the Connect 700 program was so important to Dayton that he included it in an official executive order from August 2014, which mandated that MMB work with other state agencies to increase awareness of the program as part of a broader effort to reverse the decline in disability hiring.

"The goal and the spirit of the program was to help transform state government so that it would look more like the population we serve," said Kenneth Rodgers, who helped design the Connect 700 program and is coordinator of disability programs at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In recent interviews, however, nearly a dozen former Connect 700 participants with disabilities described how agencies failed to provide adequate support, cutting short their hopes for a career in state government. In some cases, these workers said, requests for basic accommodations in the workplace — such as access to a job coach or the use of assistive technology — were ignored or denied, making it impossible for them to succeed. Several hiring managers said they were never told about the program's requirements, such as regular check-ins with participants.

"It got dumped on everyone and came to be seen as a burden," said Burgess, who is also a hiring manager at Metropolitan State. "There was no training. There were no informational sessions. And no direct contact person if you had any problems or concerns." Three years after the program's launch, Burgess said she is still getting phone calls from supervisors and vocational rehabilitation counselors across state government, seeking guidance on how to implement the program.

Last month, MMB released data showing that approximately 20% of individuals with disabilities who were approved to participate in the program were actually hired, and slightly less than 12% are still employed in state government. All told, of the 1,510 certificates issued to people eligible for Connect 700 over the past three years, fewer than 200 people made it through the 700-hour probationary period and are still working in state jobs, MMB data show.

"People were set up to fail," said Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, who is preparing legislation that would strengthen the Connect 700 program and expand training on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in state government. "This program was launched with the most honorable of intentions, but there was an absolute lack of consistent training and follow-through."

Added Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee, "This program is very, very important, and we need to make it more like a highway to employment and less like an obstacle course."

MMB officials have pointed out that the Connect 700 program is still new, and the 12% hiring rate is still triple that of the overall rate in state government for competitive jobs. The agency is working with disability advocacy groups to increase awareness of the program, to expand outreach with state agencies and to bolster training around how to respond to requests for accommodations by people with disabilities, officials said.

They also pointed to significant gains in state employment of people with disabilities, an increase that is partly attributed to the Connect 700 program. In the last fiscal year, 7.2% of state employees identified as having a disability. That is more than double the 3.7% rate in 2013, before Dayton issued the executive order directing state agencies to expand hiring of people with disabilities, according to MMB data. An estimated 11% of Minnesotans have a disability, based on U.S. census data.

"It's been a groundbreaking and successful program in a lot of ways," Batson said in a recent interview. "We are always working to improve processes and improve data to make it better."

A spokesman for MMB said the review of the Connect 700 program will be conducted by an outside contractor and is expected to be completed this year.

Twitter: @chrisserres