April 18, 2012 By Kishore S. Swaminathan
Fishermen off the southwest coast of India use mobile phones to call a hotline to report their catch before reaching the shore. Using a simple load-balancing algorithm, the hotline operator ensures that a supply-demand balance is maintained in each of the villages that the fishermen serve, so that their customers get a wider selection and the fishermen get the best price for their catch. What do human services agencies have in common with these fishermen? They too are looking to technology to transform how they work.
As resource-strapped human services agencies face countercyclical demand, leaders are exploring emerging technology applications to improve efficiency and capacity. They know they must serve increasingly connected customers who expect immediate, convenient access. They recognize that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has provided additional resources that, if deployed strategically, can enhance modernization. They know too that they must drive coordination and collaboration to truly integrate human services delivery.
Despite these imperatives, technology decisions in human services can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get bogged down in a swirl of concerns — from financing and infrastructure to security and compliance. But in planning an IT agenda, human services agencies should specifically focus on four opportunity areas where the fish are swarming — and all else will follow.
In human services IT has been a significant capital investment as agencies have purchased and installed hardware; built, run and maintained systems; and staffed and trained IT professionals. This internally focused IT paradigm is shifting to an external model where technology capability is being consumed as services. The buzzwords are familiar — from “service-oriented architecture” to the “cloud” — but the bottom line today is that infrastructure, software, platforms and business processes can be bought as services without incurring large capital commitments. This, in turn, encourages rapid experimentation at low cost and low risk, leading to innovative ways of using technology to deliver human services.
This model changes how human services are delivered. Agencies can meet the needs of multiple customers by leveraging common services and standardizing and benchmarking practices at scale. It’s a model that uses economies of scale to lower costs and free up personnel. Even technology and public policy are aligning to make this new paradigm a reality. Right now, ACA stipulations are empowering states to share services, spreading out technology costs and investments, and speeding results.
Some human services agencies are reluctant to fully embrace mobile for connecting with customers. This may be because there is a pervasive myth that only wealthy people have access to premium technology. However, data indicates that when it comes to mobile devices, the wealthiest aren’t necessarily the only or the best users of mobile technology. For many low-income families, their smartphone is a cheap computer — not an expensive phone. With a smartphone, they don’t have to pay for a laptop, a landline or a broadband connection. For human services agencies to truly meet customers at the point of need, they must make the most of this universal, lower-cost IT channel. Already states as diverse as Arkansas, Delaware and Indiana have created mobile apps to improve how citizens connect with a range of state government services. Human services agencies must tap into this momentum to send reminders, updates and information to customers’ phones. The result will mean that sitting in the welfare office for hours will soon be a thing of the past.
The combination of analytics and comprehensive data will transform the human services organization of the future. But what is the real barrier to this future state? It’s not the lack of analytics resources, but the fragmentation of data that is siloed technologically, organizationally and even by ownership. The visibility that analytics enables will be compromised until agencies break down the barriers for a true picture of human well-being. New York City’s HHS-Connect program is using technology to act as a traffic cop for the flow of data based on the “need to know” principle. Through improved access to data, information sharing and interagency collaboration, HHS-Connect is helping agencies make more informed decisions and deliver holistic human services.
The immediacy of the technology tools that surround us has created an expectation — if not an obsession — for real-time insights and actions. But the reality of real time is that it’s never any faster than the slowest process that supports it. So for human services agencies looking to operate in real time, the first place to focus is on business process improvement. This is what the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services did when call response time was lagging. With a laser focus on business process realignment, they reduced call response times from 17 minutes to 34 seconds — about as real time as it gets.
Republished from Policy & Practice, American Public Human Services Association. Kishore S. Swaminathan is Accenture’s chief scientist.
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