Information and Human Services: Where We Go From Here

nFPWIIn my previous post, I summarized a panel discussion I hosted on information and technology in the human services sector.  While the discussion focused primarily on challenges, we did discuss how the sector can better create, share, and use information to achieve greater impact in the communities we serve.  This post discusses six solutions that we touched upon in the panel.

Solution 1: Break down silos between stakeholder groups

I believe that 90% of the problems in the world are caused by the lack of good communication, which is true in this context as well. The range of stakeholders in this discussion includes government, philanthropy, nonprofit leaders, evaluators, software developers, etc. But just because they each come from different backgrounds, have different priorities, and understand the sector in different ways, that doesn’t mean they have to be hermetically sealed off from one another.

We need to collaborate better across silos, and each of us has a responsibility to be proactive in making that happen. Government agencies must work together to align systems, requirements, and solutions. Government and nonprofit partners must work together to define what information is needed, how it is collected, and how it is used. Evaluators and managers must be more nuanced in understanding both the operational and analytical uses of data.

But most importantly, a little empathy can go a long way in creating productive dialogue. No one has a monopoly on the ‘truth’ or the best way of doing things, and most people have good intentions in the decisions they have made. If we all orient ourselves to the outcomes we want to achieve together, and understand that the others have valuable perspectives, our sector might finally be able to develop solutions that work.

Solution 2: Funders need to strengthen their partnership with human services providers

As our sector matures, and as human service agencies are constantly asked to do more with less, the traditional vendor relationship between funder and provider is no longer sufficient. Funders and providers need to have an authentic partnership, and funders must respond to providers’ needs for capacity building.

Funders are natural conveners of dialogue and have access to information that providers would benefit from; they can easily create learning communities and feed information back to the providers to improve services. Regulatory and contractual requirements conspire to prevent providers from becoming more effective in their work; funders can reduce administrative burdens from the providers so they can focus on service provision.

Service information should be used to move us closer to our shared goals, and not merely for compliance driven reporting. Funders have much power in the human services sector, and as such, have responsibility for creating a collaborative sector that is appropriately resourced, clear on shared outcomes, and able to pool collective knowledge and efforts to achieve greater impact.

Solution 3: IT solutions should follow program or policy needs

As Mario Morino articulates quite clearly in Leap of Reason, we constantly need to ask ourselves “To what end?” It is very easy to get wrapped up in creating the ‘perfect’ solution and to lose sight of its original purpose. New solutions should be developed with the end goal of supporting the policy or program that necessitates it. Solutions should be built with the end users of the data in mind – including front line service providers, supervisors, evaluators, data analysts, and more.

We shouldn’t strive for the perfect simple system – we should strive for useful information that supports service delivery. The goal should be to get the right information, to the right people, at the right time.  While this seems like common sense, there are far too many examples of projects that caused way more problems than they solved.

Solution 4: Focus on interoperability and aligned data standards

The era of enterprise data systems is over; it is impossible to have one solution meet all data collection and reporting needs. With that context, the individual software components need to be able to communicate with each other, and this requires that systems use common interoperability and data standardization rules. We need to continue to work on creating standardized data definitions to facilitate data aggregation and comparison, and we need to make sure all of our systems are built to be able to communicate with the other systems in the human services information ecosystem.

Solution 5: Look to examples of where it worked well, and build on those successes

The below links are examples that were cited in the panel where we can look to see how information and technology have been used to facilitate outcomes achievement in the human services sector.

Solution 6: Create a data movement

Dedicating your career to public service is heroic, but willfully neglecting to measure and understand the impact that your programs and policies are actually having is cowardly. If we want to live in a world where human services are legitimately effective in achieving impact, we must take it upon ourselves to move our sector to care about evidence based decision making.  The human services sector lags far behind healthcare and education in articulating common outcomes and measurement frameworks that we can use to understand what is working and what is not.  We need leaders from all stakeholder groups, but most importantly the funders and operators of programs, to care about data and to take leadership in forcing our sector to honestly talk about effectiveness.  We owe it to the communities and clients we serve to make sure that we are providing effective and efficient services.  Without data, without evidence, we could very well be perpetuating (or worsening) the very problems we are here to fix.  By couching the conversation of data within the context of mission and outcomes, we can create a data movement in the human services sector that leads to better outcomes for our clients and our communities.

What ideas do you have that aren’t on this list?  Please leave a comment or continue the conversation elsewhere!

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