4 Cross-Cutting Principles for Tech Success in HHS

When it comes to the fundamentals of innovation, communication is vital to success and cooperation ensures optimal results.

by Sam Gill, Indi Dutta-Gupta and Brendan Roach, Data-Smart City Solutions / July 3, 2014

No two technology projects are alike. Program area, geography, population served—all of these factors make any effort to implement innovative technology in human services unique.

Despite these inherent differences, however, conversations with over 100 stakeholders surfaced several foundational principles that undergirded successful projects. Drawn from our recent report “Gaining Ground: A Guide to Facilitating Technology Innovation in Human Services,” these principles include: (1) acknowledging the close links between business process reform and technology innovation, (2) promoting strong communication throughout the organization, (3) fostering cooperation between program leadership and technology leadership, and (4) finding ways to scale efforts to both manage expectations and produce incremental progress.


As human services agencies leverage new technologies to improve their delivery of benefits and services, many of those we interviewed noted that there is an opportunity to consider the business processes that those technologies are intended to support. In many cases, interviewees treated these two aspects of innovation as inseparable and complementary. An administrator in South Carolina observed that process change is instrumental in unlocking the potential of technology, saying that “the technologists realize the innovation they can bring is from process change and process innovation.” Process innovation frequently demands new technology tools to assist new practices, and modernizing technology often opens opportunities to improve upon the existing routines of agency staff.


Large technology projects simply cannot advance without collaboration within agencies and, often, across a wide community of stakeholders. To sustain this collaboration, many of those interviewed stressed that reliable and robust channels of communication are of paramount importance. “The ones that are successful don’t necessarily have more resources, [but] they see the right pathway to get to their outcome, they attack it and find a way to explain it to their people,” observed one federal official. A county official agreed, noting that “communication and culture change at all levels require a lot of time and engagement.”
These open channels of communication serve to integrate the different constituencies necessary for technology innovation in human services. For example, ensuring that staff feedback is sought and incorporated helps to secure staff buy-in to the project and enriches the resulting technology tools. Strong communication also gives technologists the guidance needed to design effective technology and the opportunity to share thoughts with administrators about what sorts of interventions are possible. Additionally, communicating with elected officials can recruit champions for technology innovation in human services who will work to ensure broad political support for these projects.


Both technologists and program administrators play key roles in the success of technology innovation projects in human services, according to many stakeholders. Several told us that ensuring a productive relationship between technologists and program administrators is, therefore, critical. As a technologist in Montgomery County, Maryland said, “Our goal isn’t technology. It’s to use technology to contribute to either the business or service organization to which we belong. We’re a service organization to [another] service organization.”
Communication is equally vital between agencies and individuals receiving services and benefits. According to some interviewees, this kind of input can ensure that technology development is user-driven and tailored to the experience of the end user. In fact, such communication should not be taken for granted, said some. Given the sometimes complex web of regulations governing human services administration and benefits access, there can often be “a real communication barrier between the agency and the citizen. The letters and notices that an agency often sends don't adequately communicate the salient details to the client,” as one nonprofit leader observed. To ensure program success, innovators must communicate clearly and effectively with those seeking needed services. This individual continued, “Prioritizing plain language, human-readable copy is key to creating effective digital interfaces – particularly in the health and human services context – given the demographic diversity of clients.”


While technology has much to offer human services agencies, several of those interviewed made clear that it is important to carefully consider the scope of a prospective project. While it is tempting to consider a single massive project, such initiatives are often difficult to design and manage effectively without breaking them into smaller phases. A more incremental approach allows innovators to build “something modular and scalable so over time new benefits could be added, new departments could be added, without redoing the wiring,” as one private industry executive shared.
Many of the successful innovations profiled in the report self-consciously sought to commence at a smaller scale, and gradually grow based on success. Some of these innovations were initially planned for incremental roll-out, while others found that a modest, successful project opened further opportunities for technology innovation in human services administration and benefits access.
In some cases, these and other efforts can be enhanced by the methodology for designing, developing, and implementing the technology. Many large technology projects in human services administration and benefits access have typically used a ‘waterfall’ development process, in which the entire system is designed at once and tested as a comprehensive whole. This can result in small problems compounding into massive shortcomings in the final product. To address these problems, one federal official pointed to “the idea of iterative or agile development techniques.” Under this ‘agile’ methodology, components are quickly developed and independently tested upon completion, ensuring that no problem goes unnoticed for long. This individual noted further that agile processes “have been proven in many settings to solve many of the inherent issues that exist in this realm [of technology innovation in government services].”
No set of principles can guarantee success, nor is there any definitive ‘recipe’ for technology innovation. But what these four principles represent are several key threads that several stakeholders from different efforts noted as essential to their success. Adopting these principles can serve as a foundation for state and local government efforts to make technology a key component of efforts to improve services to the most vulnerable.
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