The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for human services in many ways.
Initially, it forced agency leaders to rethink how and where mission-critical work could be done, as well as which tools and technology were truly essential to support this new way of operating. Now, the focus has shifted toward determining the best way to allocate shrinking budgets and limited resources to sustain these changes and navigate the new landscape for the long term.
While your COVID-19 response has likely been largely reactive thus far, now is the time to be proactive with how you choose to allocate budget and resources moving forward.
If you solely invest in what’s needed to solve today’s immediate challenges, you may inadvertently put your agency at risk in the future. Take this opportunity to truly think outside the box, get creative with your technology, and simply do what’s best for your community—not just what policy dictates.
INVESTING IN TECHNOLOGY IS ESSENTIAL TO KEEP YOUR COMMUNITY SAFE
Some agency leaders have questioned if it’s appropriate to invest in technology while workers are being laid off or furloughed. While the question is valid, we’d urge you to consider that technology is essential for your remaining workers to continue providing mission-critical work while prioritizing safety.
In fact, technology isn’t just an investment in your agency; it’s an investment in the well-being of your community. You’re not only rising to meet increasing service demands brought on by COVID-19, but also minimizing exposure and mitigating risks associated with person-to-person contact.
Specifically, technology can help your agency:
- Support remote work by establishing telework capabilities
- Limit the need for clients to come to the agency
- Minimize worker contact with clients in the field
- Access case information remotely to make decisions
- Connect supportive services with minimal disruption
- Preserve caseworker time for high-value work and increase efficiency
- Enable clients to interact with the agency (e.g., submit applications and information) from wherever they’re comfortable (in their home, at the agency, in the community)
- Document that frontline workers are teleworking to provide services
- Maximize the safety and protection of the most vulnerable populations within your community
Another way to look at it: you likely won’t have your full staff operating from within the office for the foreseeable future. Without technology, how will child or adult protective services workers access the historical information and forms they need to make safety and permanency decisions? How will eligibility workers collect information to process benefits without jeopardizing their or their clients’ health? How will all workers keep up with the surge in new reports, intakes, and renewals (when waivers expire) that’s inevitably coming?
Lastly, remember that investing in technology now is necessary to ensure your agency can respond efficiently whenever the next crisis inevitably hits—be it the next wave of COVID-19 or another emergency.
GovTech recently published an article, “The Time is Now: Invest in Technology Modernization” that lays out why technology should be prioritized in future government budgets and plans. In it, they discuss the risk of maintaining the status quo:
“Governments were given somewhat of a ‘pass’ for their technology struggles during this pandemic because it all happened so quickly. Emerging from COVID-19 will take innovation backed by strong investments. If or when this all happens again, governments will not get the same ‘pass.’ The people will rightly ask why government didn't learn from COVID-19 and come into the next crisis better prepared?”
Of course, we know there are many agencies who want to invest in technology but need help figuring out how to find funds amid budget cuts and other competing priorities. Some suggestions:
- Talk to your county administrator or CIO/CFO about leveraging new funding streams created in response to COVID-19, such as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
- Discuss with your state the possibility of tapping into existing funds that can be used in a creative way during times of emergency. For example, can you pull from increased Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP) reimbursements for essential technology projects?
- Find savings within line items that have already been approved. For example, can you repurpose funds initially allocated to mileage reimbursement since workers aren’t driving to and from the office or home visits as often? Are you saving money on electricity or other utilities now that most of your staff is teleworking?
- Consult our guide, "Technology Toolkit: An Essential Buyer's Guide for Human Services" for additional funding streams to consider or view additional resources to help you navigate the complex technology buying process.
REWRITE THE RULES: EMBRACING A NEW VISION FOR SERVICE DELIVERY
Changes made during a time of crisis can be opportunities to create the new normal.
Beyond how and why to prioritize technology, we’ve also had conversations with several states and agencies around how to leverage the current flexibility being provided through waivers (e.g., easing policies, restrictions, and funding guidelines in response to the emergency) to redesign their systems and rethink how and where services are provided.
Your investments now should reflect what you envision for this new future, not simply repeating what you’ve done in the past.
If you think back to a few months ago, the agencies that were able to be nimble and remain effective despite the pandemic were the ones that have always prioritized putting supportive tools and modernization strategies in place to be in the best position possible to do what’s best for the people they serve, no matter the circumstances. These agencies had the foresight to invest in their infrastructure, tools, and capacity, and now they’re able to be innovative and creative to identify ways to keep doing better.
To steer your agency in the same direction, you must ask yourself:
- How are we adjusting to the new landscape and seizing the opportunity to make a new way?
- How are we prioritizing the right thing to do for our community, not just what outdated policies may dictate?
- How does technology drive this future vision for service delivery?
- How can we make sure to allocate resources in a way that provides long-term value and positions us to produce more meaningful outcomes in the future?
We know your community is facing real financial concerns right now and there is perceived risk in choosing to spend money on technology instead of other priorities. We strongly believe that the risk and cost of not doing anything may be even greater.
Now is the time to ensure the critical services being delivered by your workers are represented in planning and budgeting at the local level. Invest in technology to strengthen your efforts to prioritize safety while minimizing risk, plus position your agency to weather any future crisis that comes your way.
ADDITIONAL READING AND RESOURCES
If you’re looking for additional resources on prioritizing technology and preparing for what’s next, here are some related links we’ve found helpful:
- The Time is Now: Invest in Technology Modernization [GovTech]
- Investing in Human Services for a Strong and Equitable Economic Recovery [APHSA]
- Designing a State and Local Government Relief Package [The Tax Foundation]
- Status of Human Services and Education Funding Under Supplemental COVID-19 Packages [NACo]
- How Local Governments Navigate COVID-19 Budget Shortfalls [Route Fifty]
- Amid Pandemic, Economic Uncertainty, 5 Promising Technologies for Government [Techwire]
- Digital Government More Critical Than Ever [Government Navigator / $$]
- COVID-19 Resource Roundup for Human Services [Northwoods]
Think Northwoods can help? Learn more about our software that's purpose-built for human services and check out a couple of market reports we've recently published in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and GovLoop. Each dives deeper into agencies’ challenges and discusses how cloud-based human services technology helps.
- Lessons from the Pandemic: Transforming State and Local Eligibility Programs
- Investing in Essential Technology and Remote Connection in Child Welfare
- Cloud Technology for Human and Social Services: The Guide to Getting It Right
Rupam Chokshi believes that technology should always be rooted in solving problems. It is through this lens that Rupam approaches his role as director of portfolio management, where he oversees market analysis and product strategy. By ensuring Northwoods' products solve our customers’ most important problems, Rupam can help free up their time to focus on the most important aspect of their jobs—their clients.
Editor's note: Northwoods evangelists Rich Bowlen (child welfare) and Greg Tipping (economic assistance and child support) also contributed to this post.