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New York Tests Mobile Technologies for Child Protective Services

Two-year study assesses impact of mobile technologies on child welfare work.

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.

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.

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 is the program director for CTG UAlbany, a research institute, adjunct professor, Rockefeller College of Public Affiars and Policy, at the University at Albany/SUNY and affiliate faculty at Albany Law School. Meghan leads multi sector innovation initiatives in government and is an advisor to the NYS Local Government IT Directors Association, the NYS City CIOs, and international analyst for Intelligent Community Forum. Meghan is a highly sought speaker and facilitator, delivering over 250 thought-leadership and strategy sessions to leaders all over the world.