All it takes is one bad case.
Word gets out to the public that a child under county care has been placed in 20 different foster homes over the course of a year and everyone thinks the entire system has gone bad, said Roger Ward, manager of decision support research of the Hamilton County, Ohio, Department of Human Services. "Even though a case like that is an anomaly, it becomes the norm in the publics perception."
But fighting that perception can be hard if you dont have the data to prove one poorly managed case is the exception, not the rule.
Thats the dilemma the department faced when Ward and his staff began searching for a tool that could help management keep close tabs on caseloads, spending, outcome and performance. But not just any tool. It had to be something that nontechnical social workers would feel comfortable using. "We were interested in getting people to use data, but its really hard to do that with a staff who arent trained in data analysis, such as SQL queries," he said.
Ward decided to try a tool fairly new to the public-sector market: business intelligence (BI) software. Unlike traditional data-query tools, BI software hides cumbersome query languages behind a point and click interface. Actually, business intelligence software is much more than that. It can gather, store and analyze information, as well as provide quick and easy access to data.
Through the Internet, extranets and intranets, BI software allows agencies to easily share information with constituents and among workers at a relatively low cost. Thats good news for government agencies sitting on top of massive databases of information that are often inaccessible to government workers and the public alike.
"Business intelligence is about getting data out of databases and into the hands of knowledge workers and giving them the data in a way thats meaningful to them," explained Judd Lowe, area vice president of Cognos Corp., the firm that supplied Hamilton County with its BI software tool. Because of the explosive growth in electronic government, states and localities need to consolidate and integrate information from multiple agency databases more than ever so that workers can run queries, the public can conduct transactions and managers can report to policy makers on trends.
Meeting these requirements can be cumbersome, even with such solutions as data warehouses. For agencies stuck with mainframe systems, opening up data to greater access can be especially difficult. Ward pointed out that many department workers didnt bother to query the departments legacy system because the information was often out of date by the time they got the report.
But business intelligence software is specifically designed to allow workers, who dont know or care about query languages and complex analytical techniques, a fast, easy and understandable way to drill down into data and spot trends and patterns. According to Lowe, Cognos has sold its tools to welfare agencies that must report on outcomes to federal agencies so they can receive block grant funds. Criminal justice agencies use the software to analyze crime statistics, and education agencies have found the tool beneficial for spotting trends in standardized school tests.
In California, the Franchise Tax Board uses a business intelligence solution from IBM to identify residents who havent filed their taxes. In New York City, residents can visit a Web site and check the latest health inspector records of their favorite restaurant. The application was developed for the citys Department of Health using BI software from Information Builders.
Although having a data warehouse can make it easier to use business intelligence software, its not required, according to Lowe. In Hamilton County, the Department of Human Services has been using Cognos software for two years with its aging legacy mainframe system. BI software is used by county welfare workers to understand the interdependencies of multiple programs that support
welfare clients and to evaluate the performance of community programs and workers.
Perhaps most importantly, the department has used the software to show how it met federal worker participation objectives, which resulted in the awarding of millions of dollars in new grants to the county.
For child welfare, the department manages a caseload of 20,000 children, nearly one out of every 14 children in the county. Because the department is on a pay-performance program, the software has proven highly beneficial for managers who must evaluate worker efficiency. "Managers can use the software to find out how a division is doing in transferring kids into adoption and who is lagging behind," explained Ward. For example, by drilling down and viewing data displayed in bar charts, the manager can discern whether an entire site is under- performing or whether just one or two workers have fallen behind.
Like so many new applications that have the power to track and analyze data with finesse, business intelligence softwares biggest problem isnt technical, but cultural. Staff sometimes misunderstands software that can present outcomes in such detail. "The difficulty is in getting people to use it wisely," said Ward. "People tend to fear data thats new. You have to spend lots of time explaining and educating what the tool is all about."
The effort has clearly paid off for the departments $280,000 investment. Not only has worker performance improved, so has care of neglected and abused children, especially when it involves moving them into permanent placement with families. Those results have caught the attention of other counties in the area that have contracted with Hamilton to use its BI solution to manage and track their own child welfare data.
To a person like Ward, who has worked with the decision-support tools of years past and todays business intelligence software, theres no comparison. "This kind of software should be mandated, its so good," remarked Ward. "If you look at how government was run before and what we know now, youll understand what I mean."