Over the course of the two-year study, 600 CPS caseworkers from 27 local social service departments participated. Approximately 500 caseworkers responded to online surveys, while 186 caseworkers and supervisors participated in 24 small workshops and interviews. In addition, data analysis was performed on approximately 180,000 progress note records for 18,000 open cases.

The findings showed that CPS caseworkers gained: increased flexibility in where and when they work and most significantly, access to information while out of the office. Caseworkers overwhelming recommended mobile technology use in CPS work. One caseworker said, "Having a laptop increases my opportunities to access services while in the field and affords me more independence in acquiring clearances." While another commented, "I have used the laptop to complete safety assessments, enter interviews, complete RAPs [risk assessment profiles] and other case-related work when I am not in the office."

In each deployment, caseworkers used the mobile technologies most frequently at home. This was surprising because the expectation was for use in the field -- at appointments, court, client visits or in between visits.

"After a day of client visits I can go home and take care of family, then sit down and document all my notes from the day," said one caseworker. "Before I had a laptop, I had to go into the office to do documentation, but then not get home until really late. This helps me balance my work and family a little bit better."

Caseworkers also used the technologies between client visits, on commutes and while waiting in court. For some caseworkers, having a connected laptop allowed them to reduce the their travel time. One caseworker said, "I mainly use the laptop to update my notes and submit cases. I also use it to check and return e-mails and for directions. When I am in the field and get a new case, I use it to read supervisory directives and case history, and I don't have to drive back to the office to get all the information."

In the study, caseworker productivity was measured by determining whether mobile technology assisted caseworkers in entering progress notes more efficiently and if the technology helped them complete documentation. Data extracted from the state's central child welfare information system showed modest gains in timeliness when using laptops and more significant gains in overall case closings. Regarding personal time management and work output, caseworkers said they felt more in control of their work and now have more opportunities to perform required documentation.

"I do believe the laptop is a beneficial tool to have, especially for those that do emergency coverage," said one caseworker. "Plus, it is one step ahead to assist caseworkers with getting their job done."

Satisfaction with the technologies was overwhelmingly high in all efforts. Laptops were the highest-rated technology because they offered the most functionality. Many caseworkers said having a laptop reduced job-related stress.

Other technologies, such as BlackBerrys, allow e-mail but without access to the state's child welfare information system to read case histories. Laptops, meanwhile, provide caseworkers with the ability to do two critical components of their work -- enter and receive case information -- while out of the office.

However, not all responses were positive. The devices didn't reduce stress for some workers, and the reasons most frequently mentioned were technical issues of connectivity and speed, and the realities of CPS work itself. One caseworker said, "Technology only helps us to have flexibility in where and when we do the documentation, but does not lessen the complexity and tension in each case."

In total, more than 80 percent of the participants who used laptops recommended their continued use in CPS work. The reasons were improved ability to serve clients, increased ability to use time more efficiently, more autonomy in where and when work can be completed, and better access to information.

Lessons Learned

Successfully introducing new technology into an intergovernmental arena, such as CPS requires extensive planning, coordination and buy-in from multiple organizations. The state and local organizations participated in every aspect of the technical, policy and management implications of how mobile technologies are used in CPS work.

The results reveal a state willing to take a collaborative and investigative approach to a large-scale IT investment by testing technologies, uncovering issues and understanding impacts before jumping in headfirst. This strategy can be a hard sell in the beginning but can pay dividends in the end.

 

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