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Futurism: Rewiring the Human Service Sector to Become a Responsive Whole


Over the last decade or so, the human service sector in the U.S. has started down the road toward an extraordinary transformation.

Here the doubtful or desperate reader may retort: Yes, it’s started down the road toward losing its funding. Fair enough; austerity is everywhere and it’s not clear whether, when or how that might change.

But looking toward a farther horizon, a more hopeful transformation becomes visible too. There’s nothing dramatic about it. Progress is happening in quiet fits and starts. It’s coming together without a guiding hand. And the drivers are separate movements that only occasionally notice each other’s existence.

What’s happening might be imagined as a wiring project: autonomous organizations are becoming wired together by shared information. But that image, borrowed from electronics, isn’t enough. When information is shared quickly enough and intensively enough, coordinated behavior can emerge in an almost biological way. Eventually, the human service sector could begin to behave almost as though it were a single organism. It could become routinely able to respond quickly, and with collective intelligence, to significant events—whether at the level of an individual client’s crisis or an emerging social problem.

That may seem fanciful. It certainly crosses into the realm of futuristic speculation. But at least three major trends can be observed today that are leading the sector in that direction.

The first is the rise of data interoperability. A few years ago the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) began to develop standards so that human service agencies can easily build automated exchanges of data between their information systems. As a result, it’s now cheaper and more feasible to wire together, say, a family court and a county child welfare agency. A child’s service plan is instantly transmitted to the court, and the court’s approval (or otherwise) is transmitted back to the child welfare agency. The NIEM tools can be deployed wherever organizations agree that they have a business process in common that they want to streamline electronically.

How will data interoperability change the way agencies do their work? Most obviously, it makes communication faster. But the impact isn’t merely to speed up the work that agencies have always done. More agile communication tends to improve the quality of decision-making. And as multiple agencies become accustomed to communicating more quickly and in more depth, agency leaders are more likely to discover ways of reengineering the way they work together. That will lead, also, to subtle shifts in how people think about the borders of their agencies’ work. Formerly isolated silos will be connected—not only through shared data but also in the minds of the people who operate them.

The second trend is the push toward common performance measures. Since the 1990s, public and nonprofit programs have been under pressure to report measures that will show how well they’re fulfilling their missions. Now there’s a growing notion that there ought to be, for each specific type of program, a common set of measures. Already, funding agencies that pay multiple programs to do the same kind of work usually require all of them to report similar data. The next step will be to coordinate decisions about measures across multiple funders. There are plenty of efforts to pinpoint what the measures should be. (The Urban Institute’s Outcome Indicators Project, for example, suggests measures to be used by transitional housing, employment training and prisoner re-entry program, among others.) Eventually, that kind of coordination will lead to online platforms that allow stakeholders to compare the work and results of multiple organizations and programs. That’s already a reality in the world of arts and cultural organizations, where common measures are collected and distributed by the Pew Cultural Data Project. For the human services, it’s happening more slowly. Right now it’s easy to look up estimates of homelessness, or outcomes in child welfare cases at the level of states or cities; and other federal programs offer similar reports. As the thirst for information increases, it’s only a matter of time before platforms emerge that will offer more finely grained indicators.

As human service programs become empirically comparable, that fact will invisibly wire them together. The connection will happen through the awareness of all the people who will be able to look at a panorama of programs in comparison with each other. When executives can easily compare other programs’ numbers to their own, that will influence their decision-making. Ready access to common measures will guide funders and new program planners. Statistics on outputs, outcomes, costs and quality will no longer languish in obscure internal reports—they’ll be out in the world affecting the actions of a broad range of human service stakeholders.

And the third trend is open civic data. It’s the idea that data collected and maintained by the government is of potential use to civil society; if it doesn’t compromise individuals’ privacy or national security, then it ought to be open to the public. As more and more public data becomes available, common human service performance measures will get mashed up with economic, ecological, public health and criminal justice statistics. Those mash-ups will give stakeholders a more textured understanding of the interplay of factors that impact human service efforts. They’ll help program managers to fine-tune their interventions. And they’ll allow planners to identify emerging needs. Of course, researchers have always sought out this kind of information. Right now, though, that’s laborious and costly. As the ecosystem of available data grows, it will become easier, cheaper and therefore more commonplace.

These three trends come from very different origins. The idea of common performance measures was born out of the frustration of funders who felt that they were often flying blind. The National Information Exchange Model arose out of justice agencies’ need to exchange information. And the open civic data movement is related, by ethos, to the ideas of open source software and open copyright licenses. Each one is mostly talked about within its own circle of constituents, and the areas of overlap are only beginning to be explored. All of them, though, are pushing the human service sector toward coalescing into a more responsive whole.

And one more thing they have in common: none of these trends is really about technology innovation per se. This is a different kind of innovation. It’s the creation of new kinds of conversation in the human service sector: a conversation about common uses of data; a conversation about collective choices for structuring data; and—the hardest part—a conversation about defining the common meaning behind the data.

—Derek Coursen

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