Editor's note: this post was originally published on August 15, 2017. We recently refreshed the list to give you twice the amount of helpful tips!
Human services agencies face several hurdles when it comes to investing in technology.
Yet, even when resources are limited, it’s not impossible to come up with the money to purchase and maintain innovative technology solutions. (Plus, the short-term cost won’t seem so bad once you realize the long-term value of your investment!)
All it takes is a little upfront planning and creative thinking.
We’ve compiled nine tips to help you throughout the process—from exploring non-traditional funding streams to justifying and garnering support for your spend.
Think outside the box.
Many agencies still operate under the assumption that technology has to be purchased one certain way at one certain time, which can be overwhelming.
Keep in mind that payment options have become more flexible, and the ability to successfully finance a technology project seems much more manageable and realistic.
For starters, you could combine several different funding sources—e.g., supplement reimbursement money coming in with an innovation grant or loan from a for-profit partner.
You could also consider a model that allows you to pay smaller amounts over a longer period, or coordinate with another local agency to share services or drive down implementation costs.
Lastly, using a value-added reseller like Carahsoft, SHI or Dell can provide an avenue to procure the lowest cost software to support your modernization needs, while also accelerating the timeline to get the new tool in caseworkers’ hands more quickly—think “months, not years.”
Do your homework.
Each financing option has its own subset of terminology and requirements associated with leveraging it.
Whether you’re weighing a block grant against a discretionary grant or differentiating between an operational expense and a capital expense, you need to be familiar with the nuances and specifics of each option to determine which is right your agency.
You should also know the difference between local, state, and federal budgets to make sure you’re maximizing all three. For example, federal money can be the most restrictive, so you should spend that first, followed by state and then local.
Even if you’re not sure exactly how you’ll use the money once it’s approved, make sure you earmark funds for new technology as early as possible.
You might request a certain amount for “modernization” initially, and then figure out the specifics later in the process.
Remember too that each budget goes into effect at different times (federal in October, state in July, and local in January), so be strategic about when you tap into each pool of money and you may be able to spread payments over multiple fiscal years.
Think about budgeted money vs. borrowed money.
Remember that you don’t always have to ask for new/more budget. You can come up with the money now if you creatively shift some line items around or think smarter about how to find savings.
For example, if you budget for a certain amount of overtime that you don’t end up needing to spend because your caseworkers are caught up, you can free up money that’s already been approved.
Or, you could repurpose funds initially allocated to mileage reimbursement if you’re able to cut down on how often your caseworkers need to travel to and from the office. (See our blog post for how to calculate what your agency could save on mileage, plus other ideas.)
Consider the opportunity cost.
Too often, agencies are forced to fall back on maintaining the status quo because they can’t get enough funding or support to move forward with something different.
But, if you keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, think about the potential fines, improvement plans, or lawsuits that your agency could eventually face as a result.
Demonstrate how technology will help you improve performance measures and avoid these potential financial ramifications. Even if it seems like a big investment now, you’ll ultimately be better long-term stewards of taxpayer money. This will also go a long way in garnering community support.
Demonstrate social ROI.
Finite budgets mean there is internal competition for taxpayer funds. (Remember, other local entities like jails, schools, libraries, and transportation are asking for their own piece of the pie for meaningful projects too.)
When it’s time to justify your technology request, be prepared to provide a strong case that includes both a hard return on investment (ROI) and a long-term social ROI that shows how technology will affect your entire community’s well-being.
Time- and cost-savings are important, but they don’t tell the whole story. It’s critical to also demonstrate how the technology gives you footing for better community-driven outcomes.
Here’s more on how to calculate social ROI to show financial AND social impact.
Align with the administration.
In January of 2019, 20 new governors took office. With each new administration, priorities are subject to change—whether it’s a shift toward leaner government, an expansion in healthcare access and benefits, or hopefully, a move toward modernization across technology used by frontline human services workers.
Consider how your “wish list” of projects (and related budget requests) aligns with not only the needs of caseworkers, but also supports the critical objectives and messaging of the new administration and their agency leaders.
Follow the feds.
Buying technology that’s already been approved by the federal government can typically make your procurement process easier, too.
Make sure to research: are the feds aware of the technology you’re evaluating? Has it been reported to the feds in another state’s or county’s APD? Does it have an approved COTS waiver by ACF?
Use your resources.
Last but not least, know that funding isn’t a problem you have to solve by yourself.
Engage your commissioners or finance/IT committee members, a state procurement official or concierge, or your agency’s board members to help you identify and understand options and resources available to you.
There are also several online resources you can consult for additional information and advice.
In fact, we designed the following guide to help agencies better understand, search for, and evaluate various funding options available.
Download a copy, and don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions!
FUNDING TECHNOLOGY PROJECTS IN HUMAN SERVICES
Mark Washington has devoted decades to making lives better for children, youth, and their families. As director of HHS strategy, Mark supports internal business units to accelerate growth across the US so that Northwoods can continue expanding the amount of people we serve. When it comes to financing technology projects, Mark draws insight from his previous experience leading Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services and the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.