Published on 11-Oct-2010
Validated on 16 Oct 2012
"The solution we see is really about bringing business practices to social services. You walk into a bank and no more than five minutes later you’re served, no matter how long that line is" - Don Edwards, Assistant Director of Administration and Information Services for the Alameda County Social Services Agency
Alameda County Social Services Agency
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At the Alameda County Social Services Agency, Don Edwards is leading an effort to bring business practices—like effi ciency, short lines and happy customers— to the realm of social services.
Alameda has witnessed a series of challenging trends, the most prominent of which is the need to do more with less. It’s doing so by giving its caseworkers the tools to be more proactive in helping their clients get the assistance they need. Leveraging IBM Cognos business intelligence software, Alameda can get a seamless “lifecycle” of view of its customers’ interaction with social service resources. Instead of a patchwork, the agency’s departments can coordinate their service delivery, while at the same time removing the gaps between systems where fraud can thrive.
Show, don’t tell. In selling the agency’s executives on the merits of the proposed solution, Don Edwards ended up taking the most direct route—deploying a working proof-of-concept that lived up to the maxim ‘seeing is believing.’ “From that point on, the executives went from skeptical leaders to champions of the project.” — Don Edwards, Assistant Director of Administration and Information Services, the Alameda County Social Services Agency
Soft-pedal the technology angle “One of the keys to making this happen was a strong focus on the business side from the beginning. To that end, we brought the program people and the management together and essentially gave them the reins. We took their feedback as guidance on the design of the solution.” (Edwards)
• $11 million in direct savings through fraud and waste reduction • Gives managers and caseworkers a deep, real-time understanding of case and program status, enabling them to find the best assistance programs for each situation • Reveals relationships between benefit recipients and programs, helping to eliminate waste, fraud and redundancy • Generates reports in minutes instead of weeks or months— allowing caseworkers to apply their expertise by trying “what if” scenarios based on current data
In his 10 years working at the North County Self Sufficiency Center in Oakland, California, Don Edwards has never forgotten why he took the job. He reminds himself every morning when he goes to the lobby to survey the scene—the tapestry of citizens who have come here for help—and asks himself what he can do to make their life better. As the Assistant Director of Administration and Information Services for the Alameda County Social Services Agency, the tools Edwards brings to bear are technology and an energetic desire to transform the way the county serves its customers.
On the short elevator ride to the agency’s fourth floor administrative suite, Edwards is philosophical about what he sees. “Sometimes it looks fine,” he says. “Other times the line goes in one door and out the other.” Apart from such day-to-day patterns, Edwards has also taken note of a deeper trend, one that’s seen in the “new” faces that account for growing share of the agency’s limited resources. “In this economic climate, we’re seeing a change in the demographic profile of who we serve,” explains Edwards. “More than ever, we’re seeing people coming from businesses that have closed—people who not only look different from our traditional base, but also have higher expectations for service.”
Doing more with less
This underscores the bitter reality that Alameda—and counties like it all across the United States—are being asked to do more with less. Edwards has witnessed how this resource crunch can have a corrosive effect on the agency caseworkers at the heart of the process. “Every one of our people starts out idealistic and ready to help the world,” he says. “Then reality slaps them in the face, with everyone coming in with an emergency and everyone needing something right now.” With caseloads of greater than 500 customers not uncommon, it doesn’t take long for the average caseworker to grow jaded and burnout to set in.
Edwards sees this as a human reaction. But his focus is on the other side of the desk, on the people who take the bus in and can wait for hours for help, only to be told they need to come
back again with more information. Or those people whose benefits expire because they didn’t reapply in time. To Edwards, the key to improving their experience in the “system” may lie in emulating the practices of the banking industry, where he spent a decade earlier in his career. “The solution we see is really about bringing business practices to social services. You walk into a bank and no more than five minutes later you’re served, no matter how long that line is,” Edwards explains. “While banks are also tight with their resources, they’ve figured out efficiency, and that’s where we need to head.”
Toward smarter social service delivery
Edwards recognized that to realize this vision, the agency needed to facilitate a more intelligent interaction with customers, with caseworkers able to spot needs or problems as—or even before —they emerged. In the realm of social services, gleaning such insights requires a holistic view of the customer that takes into account not one facet of a customer’s life, but many—and from it assembles a comprehensive profile of his needs and services. The fact that each of the agency’s five departments had its own separate system—disconnected from the whole—made this more seamless approach to social service delivery impracticable. Edwards’s goal was to put in place a system that would change that.
The initiative Edwards had in mind epitomized his mission within the agency—to drive efficiency and operational excellence through innovation. To gain the approval needed to proceed, he needed to sell the concept on two levels. The first and most direct audience was his colleagues (also Assistant Directors) who headed the agency’s four focal areas: Child Welfare, Welfare, Adults and Aging and Welfare to Work and Administration, as well as the agency’s Director to whom they all reported. While Edwards had established a solid track record, his fellow executives, leery of anything that distracted them from the pressing priorities of day-to-day operations, were instinctively skeptical.
The value proposition he advanced was a drill-down reporting capability—the ability to view case performance from the “global” agency level down to the worker, and all levels in between—that was the stuff of managerial wish lists. But what turned the corner for Edwards was his decision to follow to the dictum “show, don’t tell.” After working with IBM to develop a working proof of concept of the solution, Edwards put it on the desktop of his colleagues to give them a taste of what it could do. “From that point,” he says, “the executives went from skeptical leaders to champions of the project.”
Securing funding for the project required the approval of the five-member Alameda County Board of Supervisors as well as the county’s Administrator’s Office. As with his agency colleagues, Edwards’s record of past successes served as a favorable backdrop for his pitch, which focused on the efficiency, cost savings and improved level of service the proposed solution would enable. “Our message resonated with the need for the agency—and the county as a whole—to overcome a host of significant economic and social challenges,” says Edwards. “Our focus wasn’t on technology, but on tools that let our employees work smarter and better handle their caseload.”
After approval and a two-month implementation, Alameda had a working solution it calls the Social Services Integrated Reporting System (SSIRS). The key to SSIRS effectiveness is its ability to present a single, seamless view of its customers’ relationship with Alameda’s social services agencies over the course of their lives. It can show, for example, a child moving through foster care to his emancipation as an adult, where he or she may still receive food stamps and other welfare benefits. Once in adulthood, SSIRS can show how a family grows or changes over time, through deaths, births and changes in marital status. Such tracking is a means to a greater end. Because agencies can see the whole picture of a customer’s life across the entire span of services, they’re able to coordinate their service delivery to best match customer needs and minimize service gaps or overlap.
The parameters of Alameda's Smarter Social Services
Instrumented: SSIRS extracts client information from a series of department specific systems.
Interconnected: SSIRS’s dashboard capability enables agency staff and management to view case performance from the “global” agency level down to the worker, and all levels in between.
Intelligent: Business intelligence and automated alerts give caseworkers the means to proactively manage their client base, and for the agency as a whole to coordinate the delivery of social services.
Making “proactive” possible
Consider typical caseworkers—besieged, inundated and doing the best they can. Asking them to be more proactive in managing their customers isn’t always a realistic proposition—because they simply don’t have the tools. SSIRS changes this by introducing a layer of intelligence that helps uncover needs and uses alerting capabilities to direct caseworkers to the most pressing priorities. To Edwards, the impact of SSIRS on his customers’ lives is what counts the most. “If a single mom is alerted that her food stamp annual review is past due or coming up, she can address it before she’s cut off, so she doesn’t have to drag her two cranky children downtown on the bus, only to stand in line for hours,” says Edwards. “If we can prevent that kind of thing on a large scale, we create a virtuous cycle by enabling a better experience for both the customer and the caseworker.”
Waste is the perennial enemy of social services; fraud—namely people receiving benefits they’re not entitled to—is one of its biggest sources. Its perpetrators thrive on the gaps between systems that permit them to “game” the system without being detected: people who collect benefits from two addresses or from stolen IDs, to name a few MOs. When Alameda brought SSIRS online, it acquired almost overnight the means to pinpoint fraud that has long been difficult to detect and even harder to prove. As Edwards explains, the cost and difficulty of pulling information together had compelled Alameda to make painful choices. “In effect, we were forced to set a bar—a threshold—in terms of the cost we’d be willing to bear to pursue these people,” says Edwards. “What SSISRS does is lower the bar and put a stop to far more fraud than we could before. In the first year SSIRS came into use, Alameda was able to reduce fraud by $11 million, which means there are more benefits available for those who deserve them.”
Working toward a vision
On the heels of this success, Alameda is extending the capabilities of SSIRS and adapting key processes to take full advantage of its functionality. For instance, investigators in the agency’s fraud department are training on how to use the SSIRS system to improve their success rate. “SSIRS complements our investigators’ skills by enabling them to connect dots that they could never connect before.” The agency is also laying the groundwork for major changes in the case management process that are designed to reduce the burden of routine tasks to free up more time for higher value activities. One such initiative is the integration of IVR technology and SSIRS to enable it to automatically notify a customer of the need to take action and—if appropriate—automated cut off of benefits in the event of non-response.
From Edwards’s point of view, SSIRS is about transforming the way social services are provided to make better use of taxpayer resources and to more efficiently extend help to those who need it. “Because of SSIRS, we as an agency are better able to coordinate the way we deliver our services, while our case managers are now better able to keep ahead o problems and spend more time proactively helping their clients,” explains Edwards. “That’s the vision of social services we’re working toward.”
Alameda’s solution is-
- IBM Government Industry Framework
- IBM Cognos
- IBM InfoSphere Identity Insight
- IBM InfoSphere Warehouse – Enterprise Edition
- IBM InfoSphere Balanced Warehouse –D5000
- IBM Global Business Services
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