Ohio's Cuyahoga County Department of Human Services, some say, was an administrative nightmare when Marjorie Hall Ellis, a former social worker who had never supervised a staff larger than 50, took the helm of a department with a $650 million annual budget and 2,600 employes.

During the six years that followed, Ellis, viewing herself as the top executive of a major business, set out to transform a loosely disciplined department into a highly structured service-delivery system.

She fired or suspended supervisors who broke the rules. She urged welfare mothers to file complaints against discourteous and unprofessional employes. And she once arranged to have an employe who was accused of charging money to put people on a benefit program arrested on the job to warn others that such activities would not be tolerated.

Ellis gained a reputation for being tough and at times harsh, descriptions to which Ellis had one response: "I'm not a social worker. I'm a manager."

Today, Ellis, who has 30 years of experience as a manager, teacher and social services worker, will take over the $68,500 position as D.C commissioner of social services, overseeing a $328 million budget and 2,913 employes. She will inherit a commission beset with operational problems in the city's foster care and youth offender programs and a growing demand for emergency homeless shelters.

Ellis said she will analyze the District operation before making any dramatic changes.

I'm not going to go tearing off like Joan of Arc with only part of the story," said Ellis. "I think of myself as a strategist, collecting pieces of the puzzle. I'm not saying that all is wonderful here. People have shown me that it is not. But the problem is certainly not going to be just lackadaisical workers, although that could be a part of it."

As an administrator in Cuyahoga County, which contains the city of Cleveland, Ellis gained a reputation for facing controversies squarely and for being savvy enough to make decisions viewed as fair in the face of often conflicting demands from employes, social service clients, advocates and politicians.

"She has gone through four different boards and commissions, with the board's majority changing back and forth from Republican to Democratic," said Tim F. Hagan, one of three Cuyahoga County commissioners to whom Ellis reported. "You won't find her out on a limb. She would have laid the foundation before she picked a direction."

In a city where social service advocates have historically been vocal critics of the department, observers say Ellis solicited the views of some longtime Cleveland critics and placed others on advisory boards. In recent interviews, some of those critics disagreed with Ellis' actions, but were reluctant to criticize someone who had not only sought their input but in their opinion, did a good job in implementing controversial changes.

Mary Boyle, a Cuyahoga County commissioner who is viewed by many as Ellis' toughest critic, said she had been concerned that Ellis did not make reducing costs a top priority. But Boyle credited Ellis with understanding how to maintain her agenda while dealing with both local and state politicians.

"To that antiwelfare-mother gang who serves in the state legislature, Cuyahoga County is the bad guy," said Boyle. "To her credit, {Ellis} was an advocate of the needs without alienating any further folks in the state house. I think she did a remarkable job. She is a tough lady who is a good administrator."

Ellis, who is divorced, has a 29-year-old daughter.

She grew up in Charleston, W.Va., in a middle-class family. Her father, an undertaker, a lawyer and Charleston's first black City Council member, stressed educational achievements. Two weeks after graduating from West Virginia State College in 1952, Ellis moved to Cleveland. "I couldn't wait to get out of there," said Ellis. "It was very separate and very unequal and it was clear to me that they wouldn't care that I had a college degree."

In Cleveland, the only work Ellis found at first was as a department store maid. In 1953, she became a social worker for the Cuyahoga County Human Services Department. In the years that followed, she worked for several nonprofit, social service organizations and administered the county's community development block grant program.

By the time Ellis was appointed to head the county Human Services Department, she had a graduate degree in business administration from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and a graduate degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

When a Boston search firm brought Ellis to the attention of the D.C. government, Ellis' Cuyahoga County department had an $800 million budget and a large dependent population, including 200,000 people receiving food stamps and more than 80,000 public assistance cases. In contrast, the District has 25,083 households receiving food stamps and about 25,000 cases of people on public assistance.

Despite the city's smaller size, Ellis says she views the District job as a new challenge. She also will be making considerably more than the $50,000 salary she received in Ohio.

Ellis is credited with reshaping the Ohio department's child services and income maintenance divisions in the face of strong opposition from employes. She instituted a family-oriented approach to the handling of cases. This increased the number of people some case workers were responsible for, but put more of an emphasis on getting children out of foster homes or institutions quicker and back into permanent family settings.

While she is praised by many for improving the department, Ellis also was often in the hot seat due to pressure from very active advocacy groups that issued frequent and detailed reports on the department and from media reports of department inadequacies. Ellis said there were two incidents in particular "that took the most out of my hide."

The first incident involved a 1985 audit by an advocacy group that detailed the inadequate response to reports of sexual abuse against children.

"That was very painful," said Ellis. "The act of violating kids sexually is one of the things that curdles the stomach and due to a bureaucratic set of problems, the system was not working from almost every point. We were working on the problems. You can't stay ahead of some things. You can't always stay ahead of the press and advocacy groups."

Also in 1985, Ellis had spent months planning for the use of a new state-of-the-art computer system to help stagger the distribution of food stamps to thousands of recipients over a 10-day-period. But on the day the program was launched, the computers did not work and hundreds of people were unable to get the stamps. Ellis scrambled to find other ways to distribute stamps and to locate the problem.

"In public relations terms, it was a fiasco," said Ellis. "It was a newspaper's delight and it lasted a month. Much hay was made about how people were made to suffer. They were not efficiently served, but we saw to it that people did not go without food."

While Ellis doubts that difficult situations she may encounter in the District would be tougher to face than those that happened in Cleveland, D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who heads the council's Human Services Committee, predicted that Ellis certainly would need to use her vast experience.

"I think it is going to be quite a difficult job," said Crawford. "It {social services} is riddled with many problems and she will inherit them. It will not be easy to resolve all these problems in a few years."