5 Lessons for Developing a Mobile Workforce (Industry Perspective)

In the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families' journey to become a mobile agency, they learned five important lessons that human services and other agencies can use.

by Matthew Burnham and Amy Kershaw / April 6, 2016

Cool. Helpful. Efficient. Productive. 

These are some of the words that social workers used to describe the 2,400 iPads that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) distributed to improve social worker efficiency and effectiveness in 2014-2015. This was near the start of DCF’s journey to become a mobile agency — a journey that continues today.

Mobile Matters

From smartphones to tablets, mobile technology is part of the fabric of life. As such, developing mobile device strategies for citizen service and workforce productivity is a public-sector priority. In fact, a recent survey reveals that a majority of state CIOs sees “mobile devices and apps” as a key area for the strategic agenda and operational plans. 

Social workers across every human service — including child welfare — have an affinity for mobile technology. Every day, social workers connect with people during visits, in the car, at court and from home. When your office is everywhere and face-to-face connections mean everything, mobile devices are more than cool gadgets — they are lifelines for delivering outcomes.

Fast Start, Far Reach

DCF’s mobile journey began after an internal inquiry to improve the agency’s engagement with children and families. The Child Welfare League of America recommended mobile devices to improve compliance and communication, suggesting that social workers use them to enter real-time data into iFamilyNet, the state’s Web-enabled SACWIS system. After rapidly deploying iPads to field staff, DCF teamed with Accenture to analyze the initial roll-out and create a blueprint for future implementation.

Five Lessons Learned

This analysis — and insights from DCF’s transformation experience — reveals five lessons for any human services agency developing or strengthening its mobile workforce.

1. Look beyond the device — focus on the mission. 

Creating a mobile workforce is not just about distributing devices and watching results happen. Agencies must develop mobile workforce programs with a perspective on how mobile can drive the mission forward, tying mobile metrics to case practice metrics.

DCF is making an important shift over time. Mobile devices are viewed as essential tools for essential work — from fieldwork to new employee training. By connecting mobility to the mission and wrapping cultural change around it, DCF is creating an environment where device development is a vital part of the future operating model of the agency itself.

2. Bring the office to the field — break down the walls.

Mobile devices have provided social workers with flexibility and real-time access to information that is necessary for their work with children and families. Social workers already spend more time in the field than they do in the office. Now that they have mobile devices to interact, communicate, report and serve, traditional in-office mandates can be too limiting.

In providing social workers with mobile devices, agencies must review and address any issues with human resources policy and practice guidelines. DCF saw the need to develop consistent HR policy to maximize the benefit of the mobile devices. 

3. Think infrastructure — not just tools.

No technology tool — including mobile devices — works in isolation. As human services agencies make mobile the main technology platform for the workforce, hardware and software investments must reflect this fact. 

A mindset shift among IT staff is key. At DCF, user interface design is increasingly about mobile user interface design. Developers need to think about how social workers access and use information on the go and the fact that they want to use mobile devices to facilitate service provision and interactions with families. 

4. Look beyond your agency — don’t go it alone. 

Departments across all levels of government are focused on mobility. This creates an opportunity to look outside individual agency boundaries for support. State-level information technology systems, and human resource agencies in particular, can assist with procurement, security, application development, human resources policy development and other operational needs. 

DCF has regular conversations with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology, and the Massachusetts Human Resources Division to solicit and share information. DCF is also sharing lessons learned with its sister agencies such as juvenile justice and transitional assistance as they contemplate a move to a more mobile workforce.

5. Get input from the field — early and often.

The workforce knows best when it comes to mobile devices. As such, agencies should start with the field — what do social workers need? Consider formal bidirectional feedback channels to ensure that leading practices are shared widely and consistently, that field feedback is gathered, and that innovation is not limited to silos.  

DCF staff use the DCF app store to request apps to translate languages, look up medications, get weather alerts, enable dictation and set up car seats correctly. DCF also conducts field surveys of their workforce to understand needs and practices. All of these suggestions support social workers’ needs in the field and help agency leadership better understand the potential of the devices.

Continuing Learning

The first agencywide survey showed that 74 percent of the DCF workforce is comfortable with the mobile devices — 66 percent feel more efficient using them. In addition, 87 percent of supervisors — who received iPads as part of the second round of deployments — think that social workers are more effective with them.

DCF continues to enhance its mobility initiative as part of a portfolio of reforms aimed at program and organizational effectiveness. Like mobile technology itself, DCF is on the move. The agency has learned that the destination is not the device itself. Because empowering a human services mobile workforce, like empowering families, entails being flexible, responsive and open to change.

Matthew Burnham is a ‎public service strategy executive at Accenture, and Amy Kershaw is the former assistant commissioner for Policy and Practice for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. An earlier version of this article was published in Policy & Practice, the journal of the American Public Human Services Association.