Posted Tuesday, February 6, 2024 by Team Northwoods

Answering the Top 10 Questions on Buying Human Services Technology

“As directors, it is our sole responsibility to clear the path and move obstacles out of the way for people to stay in our agency. Any time you can give caseworkers more time with families, it helps with their morale and their balance. That ultimately has a positive impact on the work we’re doing.” – Joe Kellerby, Child Welfare Director, Mesa County Department of Human Services

This quote from one of our customers underscores why technology has such a huge impact in human services. Technology allows workers more time to do the job they signed up to do—assisting clients in being healthy, safe, and successful—which is critical for supporting and sustaining the workforce.

Yet, buying technology can still be incredibly difficult, especially for agencies who haven’t done it before. We know it’s overwhelming to navigate all the options available, so we created a technology toolkit to help your human services agency navigate the journey—from defining the problem you want to solve, to evaluating the right partners, to implementing and optimizing your solution. Here’s a quick preview of the top questions we answer.Divider in a Northwoods blog on buying human services technology

We’ve never purchased technology before. Where do we start?

There are two critical first steps: prioritizing the problem you want to solve with technology and assessing your agency’s willingness to embrace change.

Agencies face a myriad of business problems, and when everything seems to be top priority, it’s hard to decide where to focus. Our advice? Start with the issue that’s creating the most ripple effects across agency outcomes and your ability to serve your community.

At the same time, you also need to consider if the benefits of new technology outweigh the perceived risk of leaving your comfort zone and stepping in an uncharted direction. You’ll also need to analyze several different factors, such as your existing technical infrastructure, business processes, and agency culture, to understand where you are and how to get where you want to be.

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What if my staff is hesitant to adopt a new tool?

Here’s where it’s important to know what motivates your staff to embrace or reject change. One way to do this is to outline the questions and concerns you anticipate so you’re prepared to address them when the time comes. Some examples: Why are we doing this? How will this change provide value? How will we know it’s working? (Related resource: Overcoming Obstacles That Slow Down Organizational Change in Human Services)

Another way is surveying your staff to understand what types of technology they’re comfortable using, what they struggle with, and how they view solutions they’ve been given in the past. (We know, another survey. But getting worker feedback is crucial!) By identifying the potential barriers you’ll face from the get-go, you’ll increase your chances of long-term success.

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What if we’re not quite ready for an agencywide implementation?

If you want to dip your toes in the water before you dive in, three common options for human services agencies are feasibility studies, technology consultations, or phased project implementations.

Each can be useful for mitigating risk and reducing surprises down the road (for example, costly change orders or the tool not working the way you intended). They can also help you make a more informed decision before rolling out a full solution or quickly demonstrate the value of technology before making a larger investment. (PS: Considering one of these options? The buyer’s guide includes a table that weighs the pros and cons of all three.)

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Can’t we just build something ourselves?

When starting to think about the right technology to solve certain problems, many human services agencies may falsely believe their needs are so different than everyone else to justify building their own custom solution. In the long run, however, this could be a very costly mistake. A commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product that can be configured to meet your needs and evolve over time can almost always do the job—with a considerably smaller strain on resources and faster time to value.

If you are thinking about taking a DIY approach, it’s important to first make an honest assessment as to whether your agency has the time and resources to build, deploy, and sustain its own solution. Some examples: How will we decide what features or functionality take priority? What’s the opportunity cost to the agency until things get up and running? What’s the succession plan if the person or team who designed the solution leaves? How much risk are we assuming by choosing this path? (Related resource: Build vs. Buy: Why COTS is the Smarter Choice for Human Services)

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How do we find a vendor who understands human services?

You need a partner who is willing to learn every aspect of your business. It’s easy to get distracted by smoke and mirrors—vendors who claim to have this expertise, when they don’t—so it’s important to know how to separate the two. Expertise, experience, and alignment are some of the key characteristics that set the framework for a successful partnership.

We’ve seen agencies fall into certain vendor traps that can be avoided with the right strategies. For example, if you’re concerned that a vendor is exaggerating their human services experience, ask for both social proof (think case studies and references), as well as specific use cases or practice examples that demonstrate how they can help you achieve program goals. Similarly, if you want to be sure that a vendor values innovation as much as you do, ask to see what advancements have been made or what’s being done different since your last conversation.

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How do I get my director and other decision-makers on board?

We know it can be hard for your agency to convince administrators, board members, legislators, and general stakeholders that you need to purchase new technology, no matter how essential. In our experience, there are two important concepts that can help you overcome these roadblocks.

The first is helping decision-makers see how technology will impact the well-being of your whole community, not just your workers. You may think the key to getting approval is to focus on time-savings and cost-savings, but those only tell half the story. You also must show how technology gives you footing for better community-driven outcomes, as well as how these benefits extend to your partners. The second is demonstrating why you simply can’t afford to wait. The longer it takes to get something in workers' hands, the longer vulnerable clients are missing out on the safety, stability, and well-being they deserve.

The key to articulating both concepts is a compelling, cohesive business case that explains the need, solution, investment and anticipated results. It’s also imperative that you can describe the consequences of maintaining the status quo. (Related resource: The Cost of Doing Nothing: How Inaction Can Hurt Human Services)

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Do I always have to use an RFP when purchasing technology?

Public agencies often favor requests for proposal (RFPs) as the fair, competitive way to get in front of the latest technology. However, it’s not the only option.

Agencies can also leverage sole source contracting, buying through a national purchasing contract or value-added reseller, or partnering with another agency to buy under the same contract (“cooperative purchasing”). These alternative options can save time and allow you to bypass competitive bidding, which can help you get the tool in workers’ hands faster.

And if you do choose to go the RFP route, the guide includes strategies and best practices to help you write a request that emphasizes your priorities and gives you a strategic way to evaluate the total value of a project.

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We have limited budget. How do we fund a project like this?

For some agencies, it seems impossible to come up with the money to purchase and maintain a solution. For others, the procurement process is so time- and resource-intensive they decide it isn’t worth the headache. The right combination of strategic planning, creative thinking, and business acumen can help your agency overcome any of the funding-related challenges that stand in your way.

There are several funding streams available to human services agencies, such as reimbursements and cost re-allocations. You can also consider alternative options like grants, foundations, or for-profit partners. And remember this isn’t a problem you have to solve by yourself. You can also consult peer agencies to ask what options they considered, advocacy groups to provide guidance, or even your county’s board to facilitate connections with potential sources. And remember that many vendors have fiscal advocates who can also help! (Related resource: 9 Tips for Financing Human Services Technology Projects)

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How will we know if the project is successful?

Decision-makers will want to know your goals for the project and how you plan to measure if you successfully meet them. What are the financial, operational, or security goals that need to be met for your project to be worth its investment? How will the technology allow your agency to work differently or address areas that have been hindered in the past? How will a new tool support staff retention and positively impact workers’ well-being?

We’ve helped customers create a matrix that outlines these goals, specific indicators they’ll use to measure them, and the anticipated timeline to impact for each one. (Spoiler alert: you can get a copy of this template if you download the guide!)

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What factors should we evaluate outside of the technology itself?

If it’s not already clear, technology is just one piece of the puzzle. Another challenge is figuring out the best way to integrate the solution into your business processes once it is purchased. That’s why it’s essential to go beyond the technology to evaluate the whole scope of a project: How is it managed? How will the solution be implemented? How will workers receive training? How will it be supported?

No agency wants to waste precious time or resources by spending months (or even years!) evaluating and procuring a solution that workers don’t end up using, so these factors should be top-of-mind as soon as you start searching for a new tool. Effective organizational change management will largely influence your success throughout the project. (Related resource: Change Management 101: Empowering Human Services Agencies to Embrace Innovation)

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Download the guide, “Technology Toolkit: An Essential Buyer’s Guide for Human Services,” for more insight on planning, purchasing, and implementing the right solution for your agency. Have questions that aren’t answered in the guide? Get in touch and we’re happy to help!

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