The Rise of Customer-Centered Human Services
Technology-based practices adapted from the commercial world are taking social services beyond the one-size-fits-all approach.
Everyone may be equal in the eyes of government, but that does not mean everyone is the same. One of the great weaknesses in human services over the past century is that they have operated with a mass-production, one-size-fits-all approach. In many circumstances, that is no longer necessary or appropriate.
This recognition is giving rise to a new wave of experimentation across human-services programs rooted in the premise that customized program design and delivery, based on a deeper understanding of the customers being served, will lead to better outcomes.
Forward-thinking government leaders are adapting practices from the commercial world -- from customer segmentation and geospatial mapping to advanced customer analytics -- to customize the design and delivery of human services.
Tailoring programs and services: Innovative government officials are redesigning social programs to take into account the diverse spectrum of customers they serve, delivering tailored services that better meet the needs of different customer segments. The overarching goal is to get more individuals and families out of the system -- not by redefining eligibility or cutting services but by applying the right mix of services and benefits to help them become self-sufficient.
Washington, D.C.'s redesign of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides one example of this approach. Many of D.C.'s TANF participants languished on the rolls for years. In addressing that issue, "we were trying to get an understanding of what would be engaging and worth a customer's time not only in terms of engaging in work activity but in terms of having the motivation to gain work," said Deborah Carroll, administrator of the city's Department of Human Services' Income Maintenance Administration.
TANF officials engaged with their customers through focus groups to better understand the services they needed, then redesigned the program to customize service delivery based on an assessment of the specific needs of individuals and families. This assessment includes an analysis of strengths and weaknesses, considering everything from family and work histories and individual interests to problems such as substance abuse or mental health issues. An evaluation of the pilot showed a ten-fold increase in work activity among TANF recipients.
Viewing customers through the lens of place: Most big problems aren't pervasive; they're deep rather than wide. Learning to think geospatially can offer huge benefits to human-services providers. Health-care pioneers are among those putting the power of geospatial analysis to good use.
Medical "hot spotting," for example, has revealed that a relatively small number of patients, often in the same geographic locations, account for a disproportionate share of health-care spending: In Camden, N.J., residents in just two buildings accounted for nearly $30 million in services. By better coordinating their health care and addressing their social circumstances, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers was able to cut those costs in half.
The concept is gaining steam elsewhere in the human-services field. Andrew Barclay's organization, Fostering Court Improvement, uses state and local data to map hot spots of child abuse and neglect -- neighborhoods where instances of child mistreatment are especially common. This allows child-welfare workers, judges and others to ask meaningful questions about factors that may be driving higher rates of abuse and focus their resources on the neighborhoods -- or even particular housing developments -- where they're needed most.
Using customer analytics: Businesses routinely mine troves of customer data to understand buying patterns and predict consumer needs. The public sector, too, gathers and retains enormous volumes of data, but because data is spread across siloed systems agencies are largely unable to get a 360-degree view of their customers. But what if human services agencies could know more about the people they serve and gauge the potential impact of their services on customers' lives and futures?
That's what Washington state's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is attempting to do through its integrated client database (ICDB). The database provides a comprehensive view of the life experiences of residents and families who come into contact with the state's social-services system.
The ICDB is allowing Washington state to redefine its business model for social services. The department's role is no longer limited to processing applications as they come in and tracking how quickly and accurately it executes transactions. Instead, DSHS now can use its data to understand which early interventions make the most difference and which mix of services can help each client. This, in turn, allows caseworkers to adjust their approach as circumstances warrant, making the safety net more responsive to the needs of its customers.
The truth is, it's not possible for human services to operate the way they have in the past and still meet the high standards that all human beings deserve. That's why a more customized approach has so much potential to improve the system, even as it lowers costs.
The transformation to a customer-centric organization doesn't happen overnight. Human-services agencies must cultivate the culture, skill sets and infrastructure needed to support a customer-focused organization. So much the better for agencies that start down this path sooner than later.
To learn about more about the future of human services, explore Deloitte Research's look at the future of government.