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Posted Friday, September 17, 2021 by Rich Bowlen

Finding the Way Forward: What's Next for Human Services?

How do you plan for the “new normal” when normalcy no longer exists?

Yes, it’s a bold question and a tough concept to consider. But it’s reality. As I have continued to meet with numerous directors of local and state agencies throughout the country, there is still a lot of uncertainty and confusion.

In March 2020, we published a blog with tips for managing remote human services teams that said:

“I know many of us are already struggling to find balance between completing critical tasks, making important decisions to keep at-risk kids and families safe, and figuring out how to quickly provide the right services to those who need them the most. Now, on top of all this, the realization that what’s happening today is going to dramatically alter the workforce of tomorrow is beginning to sink in.”

Well, here we are 18 months later, and these words still hold true. Many of us are still struggling to keep both feet on the ground while figuring out what everything we’ve experienced means for the future.

Early on, we pieced together makeshift solutions thinking this was a short-term thing and we just had to get through it. Now we know there’s no going back to the way things were. We are no longer planning for the “new normal” because there is no new normal. We simply have this way our world is now.

But that’s not a bad thing.

It’s time to embrace the uncertainty to chart a better path forward. We may not have all the answers, but we’ve learned so many valuable lessons that will help guide us along the way. Here are a few.

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Prioritize your workers’ well-being.

Burnout has always been a significant problem in human services. Today’s frontline workers are more mentally, emotionally, and physically drained than ever before. There’s been no reprieve for the last 18 months—they’ve just kept working at the same pace, but under even more challenging circumstances. As a result, agencies are struggling to retain quality workers and hire new workers to fill their open positions. It all creates a vicious circle.

This may seem simple but providing a listening ear and understanding heart can go a long way in helping workers feel more supported and empowered to keep going. Ask people how they are doing and how you can help. What’s working? What’s not? Where are they getting stuck? What other tools or resources do they need?

Consistent and reliable communication is key, whether your workers are remote, teleworking, or hybrid. However, don’t limit communication to when something is needed or wrong. Set a time each week to check in on how workers are doing separate from supervision, coaching, or case reviews, especially during times when it feels difficult to stay connected.

It’s too easy for caseworkers to put their own well-being on the back burner. It’s our turn to take care of them so they can take care of others.

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Demand purpose-built technology.

Technology is no longer a nice-to-have. The past year has proven that technology is essential for workers to continue providing mission-critical work, no matter where, when, or how that work is done.

But not just any technology will do. Social services leaders have long cried out for technology that's truly built from their perspective and around the needs of those they serve, not something that already exists and is re-branded to be shoe-horned in. The past year and a half exposed that this type of technology is still largely lacking.

Early on, we saw agencies cobbling together various tools and apps that addressed their immediate needs. However, they didn’t support, integrate, or communicate with each other, which created confusion, workarounds, and more problems to be solved. (Consider a caseworker who copied part of a case file to have access at home, only to realize they still didn’t have everything they needed. Not a good solution.)

If you haven’t already, use this time to reevaluate your current tools to gauge if they still provide value to your workers, without creating additional work—in a state of crisis or not. These tools should also align with your agency’s long-term strategic roadmap, enhance your existing systems, and give you footing for better community-driven outcomes.

Struggling to find the right technology? We’ve created a couple of resources in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and GovLoop to dive deeper into agencies’ challenges and how cloud-based human services technology helps.

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Put the "human" back in human services.

Humans are driven by relationships. Our desire to take care of one another is deeply engrained and ultimately is what gave rise to social services as we know them today. As everything has become more digitized and automated while we’ve been physically separated, we’ve sacrificed that element of human connection and, to some extent, the very essence of these programs have been significantly impacted.

We can’t lose sight of each family’s or individual’s story if we truly want to support their holistic needs.

Consider a social worker who wants to focus on families, even when in-person contact is limited. This worker doesn’t have time to waste collecting, entering, or tracking down data for the sake of meeting reporting requirements. Instead, they need the ability to apply as much professional focus on building relationships and truly connecting with the children and families to help them accomplish their goals.

And this isn’t a problem that’s limited to child welfare. Eligibility is another example. Applications for benefits have become more transactional as agencies have moved away from in-person interviews and requirements. But just an application doesn’t tell the full story of how a family is doing and what other resources they need. Caseworkers need time and tools to truly engage clients and help them get access to all the support they need.

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Embrace flexibility.

Easing policies, restrictions, and requirements in response to the emergency gave agencies a fresh perspective on redesigning their systems and rethinking how and where services are provided.

Agencies that have been nimble and effective throughout the pandemic have always prioritized building partnerships and developing a community sense of ownership over the health and well-being of those most vulnerable. They’re constantly striving to find new and better ways to produce meaningful services and recognize the importance of being able to pivot and react quickly to minimize interruptions or delays.

Whether or not your agency has historically operated this way, the current landscape (complete with funding!) provides an opportunity to put supportive tools and modernization strategies in place to be in the best position possible to weather any other crisis that comes your way.

It allows you to demonstrate how your willingness to simply do what was right has led to new best practices.

Moving forward, we must be bold in establishing the way we deliver critical services to the most vulnerable populations. We cannot wait for more policies, mandates, or cookie-cutter frameworks to be created by those far removed from the daily work. We have to shift the framework and evaluate decisions through the lens of this future vision, not what past policies have always dictated.

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What other lessons are helping your agency find your way forward? How can we help? Reach out! We’d love to hear what’s on your mind.

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Rich Bowlen, Vice President/Evangelist — Child Welfare Rich Bowlen’s goal is and always has been to give his very best day in and day out to do the most good for the most kids. As vice president/evangelist for child welfare, Rich serves as our national lead and advocate for child welfare and protective services. He’s the connector between Northwoods' employees and our child welfare partners, including agencies, advocacy groups, policymakers, court systems, state and local legislators, national industry leaders, and more.

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