Posted Monday, March 13, 2023 by Team Northwoods

Every Case File, One Solution: The Future of Human Services Software

A child welfare worker evaluating a report of neglect needs to know what other resources and services the family has tried to access (think food assistance or child care) to determine what supports are already in place or might be needed to keep a child is safe at home. A child welfare worker completing a reunification assessment also needs to know if parents have complied with their child support agreement.

A child care or WIC worker that needs to determine a client’s eligibility would love to see the verification information that was already sent to a SNAP worker. That way they can make sure requests for additional verification are sent out to process applications as soon as possible if needed.

A developmental disabilities services worker needs to access previous case history from child welfare and behavioral health workers to assist a client who aged out of foster care when developing an individualized services plan.

As these examples demonstrate, workers across different human services programs constantly need to interact to serve clients. But too many barriers stand in the way. In today’s landscape, the information and data they need to do it efficiently is often stored within disparate technology systems or the most detrimental system of all: paper.

It’s hard for workers to provide client-based care when communication remains siloed and critical case documentation is inaccessible across the agency. Without a clear picture of the situation they’re trying to understand and react to, it’s difficult to make informed decisions and create a holistic plan for the family. That’s why many agencies are moving toward having one solution that’s used across multiple programs to boost collaboration and better coordinate service delivery.

What are the benefits of a singular solution? What are some of the key features to consider when evaluating your options? How do you find the right tool? How can you get buy in? Let’s discuss!

Blog on technology for human services

Benefits of a Singular Software Solution for Multiple Programs

We know there are many benefits to buying software that’s tailored to each program’s exact needs. However, having one tool that suits multiple programs equally can be even more impactful when you consider the following benefits:

Holistic view of clients’ needs.

When staff across different programs are working in the same system, you can piece together a more complete view of each client’s needs and supports. Even better, the story comes together quickly, organically, and without manual work and additional back-and-forth communication. This ensures better quality within each case, facilitates more informed decisions, helps connect clients to all the supports they qualify for, and provides insight to allocate agency resources.

Reduce duplicate data entry.

When workers in one program can’t see data collected by another, they have to ask for it again, which creates unnecessary administrative burden. Everyone working from the same solution minimizes the need for this redundant work and provides a vehicle for truly achieving a “No Wrong Door” approach.

Less manual or duplicative data entry, less chance for error or failing to show compliance. Plus, workers have more time to focus on engaging clients and doing high-value work and the agency can process benefits or facilitate care more quickly.

Less frustration for clients.

Beyond reducing duplicate data entry for workers, a unified software solution also minimizes the need for clients to have to submit the same documents over and over to multiple workers managing programs. This reduces their burden and frustration, while creating a more consistent experience. It also brings down costs to the agency (such as time, supplies, and postage).

Improve leadership visibility.

Navigating real-time data across program areas allows agency leaders to have better visibility into operations to meet timeliness and accuracy goals. With the right tools, you can access both individual and agency-wide caseworker and client activity.

Simplify training and sustain user adoption.

Many agencies have the same workers handling multiple programs due to staffing shortages. When workers only have to learn one system and process, they can spend less time getting up to speed and more time serving clients. (That’s especially true if the application is easy to learn and use!)

Clerical and front desk staff that serve the entire agency benefit too if they don’t have to log in to multiple systems. Long-term, this also helps standardize agency processes, which ensures greater effectiveness in conducting business.

Maximize upgrades and enhancements.

With more people using the same tool, every new feature or functionality added over time has a larger impact across your agency. When the updates are rolled out automatically, this also benefits your IT staff who doesn’t have to take on the added burden of installing the upgrade on their own time.

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Key Features for Fostering Cross-Program Collaboration

Despite many benefits, evaluating a tool that works for multiple program areas requires you to shift your mindset as you think through the features that will help you meet your goals. You want something that will have broad impact, without feeling too much like a “one size fits all” solution that hasn’t been tailored to meet different programs’ needs. The key is knocking down silos that have previously kept workers from communicating and sharing critical case information so they can better collaborate on behalf of families.

Integrations and data exchange.

Even if your whole agency is using the same platform, you’ll need to integrate data from your state systems of record, legacy technology solutions, community partners’ systems, other electronic tools, and any current or historical information in a paper-based format.

The ability to extract and exchange data between all these systems, and combine it in intuitive ways for users, allows your agency to have the most accurate and up-to-date case and client information so that your workers can do their job effectively.

Human services-specific filing structure.

The electronic filing structure, or taxonomy, ultimately determines how easy or difficult it will be for users to find the information they need to do their jobs. A filing structure that's purpose-built for human services takes into consideration the complex relationship between programs and makes it easier for caseworkers across the agency to access the right documents. (Pro tip: name content for what it is, not what it’s for. For example: a driver’s license is “Identification” whether it’s used to verify someone’s address or identity.)

Permissions and security.

Look for tools that allow your agency to share the content that is appropriate for users in different program areas but lock down the content that cannot be seen outside of a specific program due to increased confidentiality restrictions, such as mental health or child welfare. With the right tools, this can be done by document type or what case the content is connected to, depending on what you need.

Intuitive user interface.

Any software you implement should be so simple, intuitive, and meaningful that workers don’t have to give up their already limited time to learn how to use it—or be convinced why they should. This is especially important with a tool that serves multiple programs. 

Fits daily work.

Forcing caseworkers to use tools that aren’t designed around how or where they do their job is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole—it causes friction and creates additional problems. (The more people and programs who use an application, the more this problem becomes amplified!) Software should be built around the caseworker, not the other way around.

Although it is one solution, the software should also be configurable to meet different workers’ needs. Not everyone in the agency works the same so there should be features turned on or off specific to each user. Everyone should be able to quickly apply the features they can access to their specific daily work or else they won’t adopt the tool.

Empowers external collaboration.

Needing to engage stakeholders outside the agency is a common denominator for all human services programs. When different programs, providers, or agencies are constantly handing paper forms back and forth, it delays workers’ ability to make referrals or link clients to services. Even doing this work via email opens up the agency to unnecessary security risks.

The right technology will help streamline these processes (think sharing documents or signing forms) and decrease paperwork turnaround times. It also ensures that collaboration can be done securely, which is critical.

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Finding a Solution That Fits

Evaluating your technology options becomes more complicated when you consider that, while many tools fall into a similar category and have similar features, few do the exact same job. Here are a few things in addition to the features above to consider as you search for and purchase a solution. (Bonus read: Technology Toolkit: An Essential Buyer’s Guide for Human Services)

Clearly define your problem.

It can be easy to fall into a trap thinking that one piece of technology will instantaneously solve all your problems. Cut through the noise to identify the root cause that’s creating the most ripple effects across the agency. Ask yourself: what will have the greatest impact on our core business? What’s keeping workers from accomplishing their daily tasks? What’s limiting workers’ ability to interact with each other? What’s causing the most frustration for clients or partners?

Complete the cycle of information. 

Workers don’t need more systems to store and report on information. Instead, technology should be built to analyze, curate, and present information back to workers in a way that’s digestible and usable when making decisions, no matter how it originally came into the agency.

Quickly deploy and realize value.

Look for technology that’s readily available and can be implemented quickly across different programs. Of course, this reduces the burden on IT to build, support, and maintain a solution, but it also helps vulnerable children, adults, and families who don’t have time to wait for your agency to innovate on their behalf.

Find the right partner.

Look for a partner with proven experience in human services that deeply understands your agency’s problems and pain points, specifically in terms of how each program area needs to interact to serve clients. How many former agency workers or leaders are employed? How many hours have employees spent observing your workforce? (PS: learn more about Northwoods’ commitment to human services if you think we might be a good fit!)

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Getting Buy-in and Support from Key Stakeholders Across the Agency

If your agency wants to move toward a single platform for all programs, you can start doing a few things today to make this future vision a reality. Leading with change from start to finish is the key.

Assess your agency’s climate for change.

Consider how new technology and processes will impact people, which is key for a successful implementation and continued success. How does your staff feel about change? How can you help them embrace something new? Is it clear who will manage and champion your efforts? How will decisions be made and communicated? How do you anticipate the clients you serve might react?

Build a team of champions.

As you think about the right team to manage your efforts, include various internal roles and departments to help things go smoothly and accelerate buy-in. Don’t just limit yourself to the obvious (caseworkers and supervisors). Analyze the entire process that’s changing to make sure you’re not overlooking anyone who needs to be involved—e.g., clerical/support staff, attorneys, transportation aides, etc. Getting perspective and support from external partners who will be impacted can also be helpful.

What’s in it for me?

Explain how a new tool will help each unit in their own terms. For example, a child welfare social worker who knows you’re going to free up an hour each day to spend time with families will be excited for change rather than fear it. So too will the eligibility caseworker who will be able to process applications faster and stay on top of their caseload, as well as the child support worker who has more time to focus on casework and meeting timeframes. As author Simon Sinek says, always “start with why” and connect your efforts to each individual worker’s motivation and values.

Communicate early and often.

When anything is changing, it’s powerful for end users to hear from leadership and the project team about why you decided to take a new approach, what positive impact it will have, and what they should expect throughout the process.

Blog on technology for human services

How Traverse Helps in Human Services

We’ve intentionally built our cloud-based, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software Traverse® to integrate with case management systems used across different program areas within human services, from adult & aging to workforce and everything in between.

Traverse provides document and forms management in addition to mobility, case discovery, and a portal. It enables work to be done from anywhere—connected or disconnected—and creates an organized, easily accessible electronic case file across the agency from one application. It’s trusted by thousands of workers, supervisors, and directors across the country.

Watch our Traverse Overview to learn more or reach out for a personalized demo to see how Traverse can support your entire agency.

Blog on technology for human services

Director of Product Marketing Lauren Hirka, Director of Advocacy Laura Haffield, and Director of Services Jon Eakins contributed to this post.

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