The explosion of technology in health and human services (HHS) is changing how services are delivered, and services being delivered digitally is the latest force in this revolution.

Digitalization Defined

Digitalization is the systematic strategic investment in and deployment of applications for analytics, mobile devices, cloud, social media and virtual networks using the wireless convergence of video and data to dramatically enhance the speed and quality of outcomes.

These digitally delivered services will play an increasing role in meeting the needs of people who depend on the social safety net. Because some digital services are consumer-driven and interactive, the authentic voices of digitally enabled HHS consumers are starting to be heard -- without their stories being muffled or their challenges minimized.

The market penetration of the smartphone among disadvantaged populations is high -- visit a human services waiting room and you'll see consumers accessing information, listening to music and connecting with friends through their various devices. But when it comes to service delivery, is the human services community as digital as its consumers?

New roles: The rise of the chief digital officer in HHS

In recent years as technology changed and data insight became intrinsic to human services, the traditional CIO role was often split. The new CIO became focused on how data became information and the focus on technology became the domain of a newly created position, the chief technology officer.

More change is on the way. Technology-enabled, business-led processes are being challenged by the rate at which smartphones and other digital devices are being adopted. In 2014, no state or local health or human services agency, public or private, employs a chief digital officer (CDO). By 2018, many will seriously consider it.

A health or human services agency’s master client index likely creates a digital picture of families in need, providing insights into how they can be helped. For example, it may show household composition that—coupled with other data about domestic violence or crime—has the potential to prevent a child welfare tragedy. This is the power of data insight.

Analytics of structured and unstructured data has become more important. As technology and information converge in a precise digital world, the high-speed capacity for actionable insights means that frontline staff and supervisors can use risk-informed and individualized solutions for case insights that only top management comprehended a few years ago.

Wireless hot spots, smarter dashboards and client-enabled portals are now accessible through smartphones. The capacity for data solutions with more granularity and scalability is greater than ever. Maximizing the value of digital capacity will be the emerging role of the CDO.

The digital capacity to make data actionable—by staff and human services consumers—means that actionable insights will be technologically led through smartly developed prototypes engineered by the new CDO.

New business processes: Reduce complexity to serve people

To serve human services consumers in the digital world, agencies will no longer be able to justify the expense of simply mapping complex processes and identifying high value process-led transformation insights.

With the cost of digital delivery dropping, the focus will be on reducing and simplifying processes so that consumers are empowered to be as technologically self-sufficient as they are in other areas of their lives. Building a digitally empowered human services system helps vulnerable individuals and families help themselves.  

New opportunities: Grow human capital for families

Digital affords so many opportunities for today’s human services consumers to grow their human capital in accessible, personalized ways—many of which give consumers a voice they never had. Consider the possibilities when digitally empowered consumers:

  • Acquire skills online that can be digitally validated and digitally matched with employers’ needs to find work that matters with pay to match.
  • Receive real-time digital telemedicine through the home delivery of mental health support or substance abuse counseling.

These possibilities remove barriers to access and availability. What’s more, the cost of service drops when it is delivered through existing infrastructures. Services then become available to help families in need in ways that fit their lives. Consider the possibilities for improved services from health and human services providers who:

  • Develop discharge plans early in a child’s out-of-home residential placement, then shorten in-patient placement by bundling the plan with digitized outpatient after-care.
  • Connect parents with digitally empowered school-based social workers who help parents with eligibility determination, eliminating a trip to the human services agency.

New reality: Create a mature data environment 

Digitalization means that change is likely to be technology-led, not just technology-enabled. How should future-thinking health and human services leaders facilitate these changes? First, embrace the reality, and make the necessary investments.

Creating a mature data environment is a starting point—and each organization is at a different maturity level. Some have mature data environments connected to data scientists and researchers. These organizations also invest in high-speed hardware and licenses for emerging software to get good data insights fast. Other organizations have a data warehouse, but use it mostly for federal reporting or legislative inquiries. Others have not consolidated data to even consider creating an environment where actionable insights can be harvested. An investment in developing a mature data environment for each program administered by the agency will be key. Then, those mature data environments can be integrated to create an even more mature data environment.

Digitalization is the future 

Digital is already an intrinsic part of the lives of many people served by human services organizations. As the Accenture Technology Vision 2014 report explains, the digitally disrupted are finding exciting ways to control their digital destinies and become digital disruptors. Human services agencies can join other digital pioneers, by creatively using digital channels and tools to help those in need.

Howard H. Hendrick is director of human services business strategy at Accenture and former director of Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services. A version of this article was originally published in the April 2014 edition of Policy & Practice, the journal of the American Public Human Services Association.