Information and Technology in Human Services: Framing the Problem

On Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014, I moderated a panel co-sponsored by NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the New York Consortium of Evaluators titled “Information and Technology in Human Services; Who’s at the Table, and How Do We Work Better Together.”  The panelists were:

  • Ivy Pool – Executive Director, HHS Connect at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Operations
  • Marlowe Greenberg – Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Foothold Technology
  • Brad Dudding – Chief Operating Officer, Center for Employment Opportunity
  • Derek Coursen, Director of Planning & Informatics at Public Health Solutions

This post summarizes the first half of the conversation in which we framed the issue and discussed contributing factors. A later post will review the possible solutions that the panelists discussed. The full recording of the event can be found at the bottom of this post.  The numbers in parentheses are time markers in the recording where you can locate the discussion on that topic.

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Framing of the issue:

Every organization and individual within the human services sector is part of an ecosystem that seeks to bring greater good to our fellow human beings. The sector is organized in such a way that facilitates some collaboration automatically, such as  funders paying for the services, and grantees providing the services.  But that same structure also inhibits communication and collaboration between other parts of the sector, such as when multiple nonprofit organizations serve the same client with little to no coordination with each other. (4:30)

No matter where they sit in the sector, each stakeholder relies on valid information and authentic communication to be effective partners in the human services sector.  The question is not IF each of the stakeholders should work together, but how they DO (or should) communicate and collaborate to achieve greater human potential.  Each stakeholder therefor has a legitimate claim to the information that is being collected, and also the decision making process about the design and management of those information systems.

In effective collaborations, nonprofits have information that prevents duplication of efforts or missed service opportunities, funders have reliable information to manage their resources and hold grantees accountable, and various partners across systems and geographies work together to provide comprehensive and coordinated services.  And these are just some of the inter-dependencies that start to highlight the role of information systems developers in this conversation. (17:20)

As many of us know, the collection and management of that information can be a source of great frustration.  With the wide range of stakeholders, it can be extremely difficult to coordinate even the most basic of tasks.  The devil is not just in the details, complexity is in the first questions we ask:

  • Who defines what information we collect, in what form, in what time intervals, using what tools?  And who has access to that information once it has been created?
  • Should funders mandate the systems that contracted nonprofits use to collect information?  If so, what do we do about nonprofits who now have multiple funders with multiple requirements in multiple systems?  And if not, how can funders ensure that they get the information that they need across the multitude of organizations they work with?

At their root, these challenges are not technical in nature, but are about different stakeholders having different priorities, different resources, different access to power, and about how our sector negotiates those differences and makes decisions. (9:10)

Different perspectives of the problem:

  • Ivy:  Clients are being served by multiple city programs and multiple city agencies in multiple databases, and even within city government, there are programmatic and data silos. (13:30)  The city government has developed HHS Connect to tie various city databases together and develop shared case management functionality to reduce the silos in NYC government (15:20). There is a misguided notion that the way to develop IT systems is to send the IT staff to build the systems to support what we need, but what we really need is to approach the solutions from a policy perspective, not an IT perspective.
  • Derek: There are three root causes of this problem: (1) This kind of conversation does not happen very much, we need to bridge the boundaries between: operational uses of data and analytical uses of data, between technology people and non-technology people, and between nonprofits and governments. (16:40)  Each stakeholder group speaks a different professional language and it’s hard to enter into the other’s worldviews.  (2) The problems that the human services sector are trying to address are complex human problems, and there is no way that the management of information in this context is going to be simple (18:20).  (3) IT professionals and nonprofit professionals are approaching issues of data and technology in ways that are not leading us to effective solutions.  Nonprofit professionals only want to talk about technology (not data), and IT professionals develop solutions without thinking through what would create meaningful data (19:45)
  • Brad: GPRA created a lot of good and created strong accountability structures, but it has gone too far towards measurement for compliance, and we need to ask ourselves if the measurement is leading towards greater benefit of our clients.  The relationship between government and nonprofits needs to change from a vendor relationship to a partnership in which nonprofits also receive capacity and technical supports in addition to financial support. Government’s goal should be to create strong organizations. (22:30)
  • Marlowe: Jurisdictional overlap and lack of communication or coordination among different levels of government are the main problem.  There are too many governments creating too much regulation and legislation, and that is making it difficult for nonprofits to manage the  multiplicity of systems, requirements, and regulations from government funders and regulators (27:55)

A later post will review the solutions that were discussed.

Listen to a full recording of the event below.

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2 thoughts on “Information and Technology in Human Services: Framing the Problem

  1. Reblogged this on Human Service Informatics and commented:
    An exciting conversation. Government and nonprofits, evaluation and operations, technology and its users—all around the same table talking about how to frame and resolve the problems of human service data. As Patrick Germain very aptly introduced it: “At the root, the challenges… aren’t technical… but are about different stakeholders having different resources, different priorities, different access to power, and it’s about how our sector negotiates those differences and makes decisions, it’s not about [the technology per se]” (10:40)

  2. Pingback: Information and Human Services: Where We Go From Here | The Measured Nonprofit

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