Why Citizen Engagement Is Essential to Human Services Convergence (Industry Perspective)

By understanding the consumer voice and developing a robust citizen engagement strategy, leaders can rally diverse programmatic interests and build the foundation for convergence.

by Clarence Carter and Jerry Friedman / September 18, 2015

Resistance from advocates who are singularly focused on one program can impede progress toward convergence — toward integrated and citizen focused human services delivery models. And sometimes, only consumer voices can break through.

There is nothing like the passion of human services advocates. Many spend entire careers working tirelessly to get support and resources for their programs. It should be no surprise that many fear  integration will mean “less” not “more” for their cause. This is why it is so difficult to get to a collective voice on enterprise human services in a categorical advocacy world. There is “resisting” when there needs to be “rallying.”

Many human services leaders are discovering the hard way that making an intellectual case for change is not enough. Instead, leaders must harness the one thing that all advocates have in common: the consumer. By understanding the consumer voice and developing a robust citizen engagement strategy, leaders can rally diverse programmatic interests and build the foundation for convergence. 

The Case for Convergence

Why is convergence so important? Not only is there a greater demand for more services with fewer resources, digitally savvy consumers expect a modern, efficient service experience. Yet the categorical system is difficult to navigate, costly and redundant. What’s more, it is hard to measure outcomes over outputs to articulate a return on taxpayer investment. And when the only good news is bad news, the public can become disenchanted. 

Convergence is the common sense alternative. In a convergent system, there are no boundaries. Individuals, families, health and human services professionals, and community organizations work in a streamlined and personalized way to address the social determinants of health. It is about collaborative and cost-effective service delivery models that challenge today’s ingrained system. Simply put, convergence is the realization of the generative level on the Human Services Value Curve (see figure below). This level generates outcomes with whole-family approaches that seed healthy communities.

© The Human Service Value Curve by Leadership for a Networked World is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 International License. Based on work at lnwprogram.org/hsvc permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at lnwprogram.org.

The Consumer as Advocate

By definition, the generative level cannot exist without a strong focus on consumers. In fact, consumers are unique and unequivocal advocates for themselves, and for the benefits of the convergent human services enterprise:

  • Consumers keep agencies honest. Only consumers are on the frontlines of their own lives. Only they know if the services they get are helping them on the path to self-sufficiency. They know the rewards and the roadblocks.
  • Consumers want to act, not watch. The digital economy has influenced consumers to expect two-way interactions with providers of goods and services. They want dialogues, not directives.
  • Consumers have a 360-degree view. Consumers live their interrelated needs — such as mental health, child welfare, housing and substance abuse — without the program bias that is hard for program directors and advocates to avoid.

How to Take Action

When human services advocates get tangled in a myopic, categorical view, there are two interest groups that can drive convergence : adaptive leaders and consumers. This is why citizen engagement is so essential to success and should be rooted in three key actions:

1. Act with Intention — and Inclusion
Leaders must recognize that a citizen engagement focus is a very different orientation than what agencies are held accountable for today: the administration of programs that deliver benefits, goods and services. Understanding consumers starts with understanding that they do not choose to be dependent on the social safety net. 

With this view, leaders can engage advocates early and often in work groups focused on improving the enterprise. Agencies should populate workgroups with advocates, citizens and representatives of the business community as well. Not only can they lend business acumen and experiential understanding of the need to invest in enterprise infrastructure, they can act as more objective influencers to narrowly-focused work group members. 

2. Communicate with Everyone — Often 
There must be an enterprise communications strategy around the vision and purpose of these efforts. This requires ongoing dialogue with — not “at” — executive leadership, legislators, stakeholders, advocacy groups, labor unions and citizens. It can be very powerful for agencies to create forums and feedback mechanisms for consumer voices to be heard on their own.

Throughout this process, there is also a benefit to connecting with federal program administrators who can offer insight on rules, waivers and permissions and how they might impact program transformation or even the consumer experience.

3. Make the Business Case — with Data
Leaders must take an executive approach to the move to a convergent system. They must articulate and refine a solid business case backed by data and clear consumer perspectives. 

This starts with shared data strategies and outcome measurement processes. The focus must be on qualitatively and quantitatively demonstrating the value of less reliance on the system and shorter periods of intervention. Planning for programs that allow for quick wins for citizens can encourage early buy-in from all stakeholders. Ultimately creating a virtuous circle, better and more efficient services will garner stronger consumer and community support.

Parts of the Whole

Categorical human service programs form a delicate ecosystem: parts of a whole designed to help people to self-sufficiency. Even as advocates cling to their “part” with passion and some understandable skepticism for total integration, they are actually limiting their own work. 

Consumers know — and advocates must learn from them — that people cannot fully benefit unless all the components of the care system are well aligned. This is the essence of convergence and why it must be the future of human services delivery.

This article was adapted from an earlier article published in Policy & Practice, the journal of the American Public Human Services Association, by Clarence Carter, former director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and Jerry Friedman, director of Strategic Initiatives for Accenture. Jerry Friedman passed away in 2015.


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