Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Though the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu imparted this wisdom around the sixth century B.C., it's relevant today as governments not only grapple with the unbending truth of limited resources, but also seek to include others in their solutions, dipping into almost limitless possibilities by connecting with and relying on clients, communities and vendors.

Perhaps nowhere is it more imperative to be resourceful than county health and human services agencies, which strive to meet citizens' most basic needs. Compare notes with such agencies and you'll be met with dizzying mandates: improve client outcomes; meet federal directives; chip away at fraud; track regulatory changes; confront duplication and inefficiency; plug gaps; and deal with disparate systems and technologies while encouraging workers to adopt new business processes meant to help alleviate those challenges, but instead add to them.

Adding more cases to the load isn't a good option -- some workers in Alameda County, Calif., already have 600 at one time.

Counties and states are instead looking at new technologies to help them find and pick the lowest-hanging fruit, boost efficiency and ultimately remit some of the work and control to people who use their services -- involving them in the process, instead of just feeding them.

Collaborative Vision

In Scott County, Minn., the aptly named organization FISH (Families and Individuals Sharing Hope) was formed to improve connections between county government, faith-based and service groups, nonprofits, and businesses to fill resources gaps. While the county government dreamed up the arrangement and started the process, each sector is a spoke in the wheel, working independently but also together to meet community needs.

"It's a community-based response rather than a government agency or nonprofit agency response," said Tim Walsh, community services director of Scott County. "You have people in these various communities and a lot of people who just want to do good. They don't know how to organize together necessarily, they can't do it all by themselves, they don't know who else is interested in doing that. We want to provide tools for them."

Walsh explained FISH's two elements: a leadership council of about 100 leaders, and a relational network that organizes resources and individuals by what they're offering. Resource requests are taken from members of the relational network and brought to leaders who work to find solutions. While organizing a simple group e-mail has helped FISH meet the needs of more than 70 families (in one instance, installing a wheelchair ramp), Walsh said the organization has a grander vision for its Internet portal, which is still in its infancy.

The county worked with High Monkey Consulting and Insightformation Inc. to build the first iteration of its portal with Microsoft SharePoint 2007 as the platform and framework, hosting the site on the county's existing SharePoint servers. The site enables the leadership team, and soon the larger service community, to log on and communicate, said Perry Mulcrone, the county's deputy IT director.

FISH also is developing an e-citizen portal, Mulcrone said. As it's imagined, FISH's website will be an area to give -- to donate money or time -- and to receive -- to find a resource or log a need and have a network member who has access to the extended collaboration site guide them, Walsh said. The website also will offer access to the Broader Needs Assessment (BNA) application engineered by neighboring Hennepin County. The tool searches the state's existing resources database and presents services based on clients' needs, said Jennifer Castillo, the business-side lead for the BNA and principal planning analyst for the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department.

Mulcrone said FISH also plans for improved discussion boards,

Jessica Hughes  |  Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.