"Other state HHS agencies have adopted the exchange model in a broad sense, but New York City has moved further along, showing how it can be done, and in the process, become a best practice," he said.

For the city's commissioners who are investing in HHS-Connect, having a nationally recognized data exchange model is fine. But outcomes in terms of speed, accurate assessments, and satisfied customers and workers are the bottom line. Commissioner Robert Doar, who heads the Human Resources Administration -- the biggest player in the HHS -- said the agency needs HHS-Connect so that case handling is more convenient, faster, widespread and more comprehensive.

The thorniest issue he faces is the legality of exchanging certain aspects of client information between agencies. "That will be the toughest issue for all of us [involved in HHS-Connect] because there come times when one agency is holding data that we need to see ourselves," Doar said. "Navigating those legal issues will be difficult."

But that's where Gibbs' role comes into play. "Linda is there to look out over the whole picture in regards to the legal issues of sharing information and then negotiate and resolve these issues," Doar said. "She really understands how these programs interact now and how they need to interact better. She's very good at navigating."

Recession-Proof

When the initial phase of HHS-Connect started in 2007, the nation's current financial crisis was just a distant rumble. Today New York City plans to spend $86 million on the project's first phase, concurrent to the worst recession since the Great Depression. Despite the fact that every city agency has taken some capital cuts, HHS-Connect has remained largely unscathed so far, according to Gibbs.

One reason for such stability is that the project has strong support from New York City CIO Paul Cosgrave. The city's Office of Management and Budget also has been a big champion consolidating siloed systems to generate long-term savings.

Gibbs also thinks that by splitting the initiative into multiple phases, each with its own competitive procurement process, the project builds incrementally. Gibbs is quick to credit Bherwani for ensuring that the city gets the best deals for technology investments required by HHS-Connect.

But the real story remains the benefits that HHS-Connect will deliver to clients and caseworkers. Gibbs recalled that her old agency, the Department of Homeless Services, had approximately 60 stand-alone data systems that couldn't exchange information with one another, let alone other city agencies. By removing what were once thought to be insurmountable barriers to data exchange and making it more portable across many systems, the city is quickly reaching a point where city caseworkers and nonprofit organizations, such as Yeled V'Yalda, can form relationships with clients that are simpler and more supportive.

"The wild goose chases for information will be over," Gibbs said.

Tod Newcombe  |  Contributing Editor