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Navigating the Recovery: Harnessing the Cloud to Improve Social Services

Denise Winkler, strategic business executive for social services and labor at Google Cloud, shares insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the delivery of social safety net services – and what these changes mean for the future.

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How has the pandemic affected technology investments for social services and labor agencies?

When COVID hit last year, the need for social safety net services spiked. Unemployment absolutely exploded. Agencies sent people to their portals and call centers to apply for or get benefits. Unfortunately, most of this was legacy IT infrastructure. It wasn’t designed to handle that kind of volume or accommodate changing legislation and new benefits. We had people waiting hours on the phone, portals going down and bad actors committing fraud.

This situation showed the power of the cloud. Agencies used the cloud to handle petabytes of data on demand to deal with the massive fluctuation in volume. Using a low-code or no-code platform also let agencies stand up applications quickly for new benefit programs. Artificial intelligence, virtual agents and chatbots facilitated process and task automation, helping agencies find errors and potential fraud and separate those transactions from legitimate claims so people could get their benefits quickly.

Ultimately, the entire social services ecosystem is going to start moving things to the cloud and embracing these new technologies to automate high-volume, low-touch transactions.

How did the pandemic reshape service delivery and community engagement?

Service delivery literally had to change overnight. The social safety net ecosystem has always been driven by in-person, face-to-face delivery. However, service delivery changed for the better.

Virtual interviews and online submission of applications and verification documents improved access, especially when the technology could support the volume necessary. Technologies like intelligent agents and chatbots expanded call center capacity and allowed people to get a response to their questions 24/7. It was also more efficient for government agencies and community providers.

What lessons have agencies learned about delivering more equitable services?

Many safety net organizations are there to help people who have fallen on difficult times. Asking people to leave work for an interview doesn’t make sense — it’s counterintuitive to program outcomes. Providing more access is important because it enables people to actually apply for services. But virtual services also exposed weaknesses with access to broadband and digital devices. It also reinforced within the technology world that these programs must work with multiple devices just as well as they do with a standard PC.

In a post-pandemic world, how should agencies balance in-person and digital service delivery?

Virtual service delivery is extraordinary because it allows us to extend access or expand services. But there needs to be a balance of what is the policy and outcome vs. what is the task we need to accomplish.

For child welfare agencies, nothing will replace face-to-face engagement with a child and family. But going forward, virtual visits can expand the frequency with which these agencies can engage with a child and family.

We can also use technology in innovative ways to recover, such as using artificial intelligence to help map employee skills to jobs in industries that are recovering quicker or to facilitate virtual career centers, virtual career fairs and virtual job interviews. If those solutions are plugged into programs like SNAP, employment and training, agencies can help people get back to work and monitor compliance with certain program requirements.

What best practices should social safety net agencies consider to improve outcomes and better serve constituents once we return to some semblance of normalcy?

The cloud has really shown its power, effectiveness and efficiency. Moving away from traditional technologies toward modern, cloud-based architectures is really critical. Agencies have stuck with legacy IT infrastructure for a very long time because it’s been easier to do that in the public sector procurement space.

As states, cities and counties look at modernizing, one of the things the cloud demonstrated during COVID is the ability to support incremental improvement. Ripping and replacing these big benefit delivery systems and taking up to five years to deploy something new — that’s been a recipe for disaster.

Addressing mission-critical problems with modules that work and can be implemented in days or weeks — not months or years — has really proven itself. That’s a roadmap for the future in how we modernize these systems.