In 2006, the New York Legislature began funding the deployment and testing of mobile technologies to help child protective services (CPS) caseworkers deal with their caseloads. The project was a joint effort among the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), 23 local departments of social service, New York City's Administration for Children Services (ACS), and the University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government (CTG).

The organizations developed a strategy to deploy and assess the technologies to inform decision-making for future IT investments. The tests covered three successive technology deployments that provided the OCFS with useful data about how mobile technology impacts child welfare work in New York state.

The two-year phased deployment allowed CPS caseworkers to influence technology investments that will impact their profession. Through surveys, focus groups and workshops, caseworkers informed decision-makers about the pros and cons of using different mobile technologies to support their work. Groups tested laptops and tablet PCs to access case information, BlackBerrys for e-mail, digital pens to take notes and telephone dictation services for case documentation. The results gave New York a substantial knowledge base to maked informed decisions about the large-scale acquisition and deployment of new devices for CPS fieldwork.

"By investing in systematic testing along with phased deployment, the OCFS has gained valuable experience and a rich store of impact data to guide further implementation of mobile strategies," said Anthony Cresswell, the CTG's interim director.

Through each phase, assessment findings were presented to the agency. The first phase involved the aforementioned mobile technologies deployed in three social service districts. Findings from the first phase showed laptops with wireless connectivity offer the most functionality for casework in the field, as there are more than 200 caseworkers in Manhattan and Staten Island. Most recently, statewide laptop testing followed; more than 500 laptops and tablets were deployed to 23 local social service departments across New York.

The OCFS has long recognized and attempted to support the field-intensive nature of casework. In conjunction with the initial rollout of automated equipment into the field in the mid-1990s, the OCFS provided laptops to after-hours and on-call caseworkers and supervisors so they could connect to the system via dial-up.

This decade, the OCFS provided portable data entry devices (QuickPADs) to every CPS worker in the state. This was followed by the deployment of voice recognition software licenses, primarily to CPS caseworkers, supervisors and managers. Not all chose to use the technology, but those who did used it for case note documentation.

Findings

CPS caseworkers' job responsibilities typically fall into three main areas: investigating child abuse claims, documenting information in the state's central child welfare information system, and preparing for and appearing in court. Typically caseworkers spend a large portion of their office time performing tasks related to these functions: reviewing case history before investigating claims, documenting contacts in the central system, and preparing form-based and narrative-style historical information. Through the state's mobile-technology initiatives, caseworkers can work from other locations.

One of the assessment's main goals was to provide real-time input into the overall implementation and deployment strategies of the mobile-technology initiatives. The assessment focused on two core areas: understanding how the technology is used in the work setting and how it impacted the work itself. Information about mobility use and general satisfaction was used for midcourse and overall decision-making.

Armed with assessment findings in areas such as device capabilities, satisfaction, effects on productivity and general obstacles, leadership teams from participating agencies made strategic and tactical modifications to enhance the comprehensive implementation plan. Some midcourse adjustments included changing networking infrastructure to increase system performance speed and initiating cross-department discussions on compensation policies. Post-assessment findings influenced device selection and smaller, more manageable deployment numbers. This feedback loop emerged as the assessment's most effective component.

Meghan Cook  | 
Meghan Cook is program manager of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany/State University of New York.