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Social Services’ Challenge of Sharing Data

It takes leadership to implement the type of IT systems that would make human services more efficient and effective.

For human services, it has long been a Holy Grail: trying to figure out how to share data between and among all the various agencies and departments in order to improve how states and localities manage cases. If we could somehow integrate data from welfare, children and family services, health, mental health, housing services, and the courts -- to mention just six key policy areas and players -- we could be so much more efficient and effective in helping people who need it, and ideally boosting them to a point where they no longer require government oversight or assistance.

The whole thing, of course, hinges on information technology. It seems that state and local governments are forever in the midst of IT acquisitions and upgrades that all promise a bold and nimble new future. But then the promise never quite gets delivered.

A report released last month by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), "Achieving Maximum Value from HHS IT Systems: Critical Success Factors for Agency Transformation," offers some upbeat advice on how to get the most out of IT. But as with all such reports, it's one thing to make suggestions; it's quite another to actually deliver. The three keys to successful IT usage, according to the report are:

  • Leadership and communication: "Today's technology can help facilitate effective communication throughout and across organizations. It can only do so, though, when organizations define clear goals for communication and when they work together to implement the necessary changes to support effective use of the technical tools."

  • Adaptive systems: "Health and human services environments are dynamic and changing rapidly. Its solutions must be able to adapt effectively to this constant change."

  • Performance measurement: "IT deployments are long-term projects, typically taking years to complete. To ensure that projects stay on track and focused on the original, key deliverables, it is critical to define benchmarks and track against them."
Simple enough, except it takes people to get this stuff done. In a world of computers, logic rules. In a world of human beings, it doesn't. And so the report, which was underwritten by Microsoft, does note that "...in spite of the best laid plans of state leaders, project management teams, private industry partners, and others, a number of challenges remain."

A not-so-new report by The Council of State Governments' Justice Center on prison re-entry helps explain why acquiring and aligning IT systems isn't so easy. For starters, it turns out that bureaucratic and cultural hurdles are formidable. In the case of the former, the report suggests that efforts to integrate ought to first occur within a single system. In other words, if the state corrections system includes the prisons, prison health care and parole, try first to get these systems in sync. "Because the chiefs of these divisions report to the same executive, integrating their information systems should be a realistic, albeit challenging goal."

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As for culture, the report succinctly notes that "[p]reparing staff to use a dramatically different information system does not mean simply training them on the use of the new system, but rather confronting a major shift in the culture of the entire organization."

Certainly, these are all tough things to do. But as the APHSA report actually points out, it might all come back to leadership. I had a conversation not long ago with three officials from the Michigan state courts, Marcus Dobek, who runs IT for the state courts; Kelly Howard, director of child welfare services; and Maribeth Preston, a management analyst for child welfare services. The goal in Michigan is to improve communication and information sharing between the Department of Human Services and the courts so that the courts are tuned into what's going on with various kids and families under its jurisdiction.

Executed through a straightforward memorandum of understanding, the state is now sharing data through its enterprise data warehouse in a host of areas like adoption status, reunification and length of stay in state custody. Even more ambitious, the courts hope to be able to access data on the Statewide/Tribal Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) on an ongoing basis.

Key to the agreement, says Kelly, is the broad nature of the memorandum. "Our first data sharing agreement was very narrowly defined so that every time the court requested a new type of report it required an amendment to the memo."

But again, technology doesn't bridge gaps, people do, and Kelly acknowledges the role of leadership in the Michigan effort. "I would be remiss if I didn't recognize [Department of Human Services Director] Maura Corrigan for her leadership in this process. I know she made a lot of calls over there."

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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