Golden Rules for Transforming Human Services

Times are tough, but that can be an opportunity for finding better ways to deliver the services people need more than ever.
by | February 14, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

Much of what we hear about human-services challenges facing governments these days is negative: tragedies blamed on broken systems, demand rising in hard times, resources that cannot keep pace with citizens' needs. To many, it is the worst of times. Yet pragmatic practitioners and leaders understand that we are also in a time of great opportunity.

A human-services summit at Harvard University featured an array of proactive leaders, describing how they are re-framing their operations and employing supportive technologies to focus on people rather than programs, outcomes rather than outputs, and transformation instead of transactions. These leaders, along with academics and industry experts, shared a commitment to a number of "golden rules":

Adapt, then act.

"It doesn't matter which jurisdiction you're from, if you're one of the states, if you're one of the provinces in Canada, the U.K. or Australia, we're all facing exactly the same challenges and opportunities."

—George Zegarac, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Ontario

One thing that is certain about the human-services landscape is that current service-delivery models are not sustainable.  Moving from disconnected services demands adaptive leaders to drive more collaborative and integrated models, both in organizational culture and program delivery. This leadership style also encourages a proactive vision, such as the Comprehensive Services Academy approach in Hampton County, Va., that embraces a "wraparound" service-delivery philosophy.

Believe in people.

"We have really good people ... but they are stuck in some really broken systems, processes that don't work for us anymore."

—Ken Miller, founder of the Change and Innovation Agency and author of "Extreme Government Makeover"

Leadership is not just about the people at the top of the organizational chart. Driving change in human services demands that employees are invested and act as leaders of change in their own right. In transforming the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, Secretary Susan Dreyfus committed to giving agency employees an authentic voice in the organization, resulting in their active and supportive contributions and ideas for service-delivery improvements.

Connect with the community.

"If we don't see the hope, how can we get our families to see that there's a better life for themselves?"

—David Berns, District of Columbia Department of Human Services

The essence of human services is community. While taking a community focus and reaching out to local private and nonprofit partners challenges an agency's willingness to share responsibility, power and governance, it can exponentially grow capacity. Lynn Johnson, executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Human Services in Colorado, successfully led the formation of the JeffCo Prosperity Project to better coordinate children and family services between government and community partners. This success came from breaking down traditional barriers and leveraging common interests and resource-sharing.

Seize the moment.

"This is one heck of a time, but it has also created an exciting time for us to have a sense of urgency about a very different type of leadership and a very different type of organizational framework."

—Susan Dreyfus, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services

There has never been a better time for human-services agencies to find more effective and efficient ways to serve their constituents.  This moment in time is marked by historic federal funding matches, cost-allocation waivers and federal flexibility that may never again be so welcoming.  Now is the time for agencies to act swiftly and creatively to transform this opportunity into outcomes.

Break from the past.

"Sometimes desperation breeds innovation."

—Ruth Johnson, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services

In implementing its NC Fast project, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services laid the groundwork for integrated service delivery and extensive tracking of outcomes, rather than continuing with a transaction-based, output-focused service approach.

The human-services summit featured numerous agencies that are breaking from the past across every aspect of their work—from policy, practice and organizational processes to people, technology, financing and resource development. By taking on the risk of change, these agencies are discovering significant rewards.