Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government

William D. Eggers

208 pages, RosettaBooks, 2016

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Delivering on Digital explores how a new generation of digital innovators are using tools such as cloud computing, mobile devices, and analytics to reform and modernize long-standing processes within government. It showcases dozens of case studies of governments from Estonia to San Francisco that have successfully increased citizen engagement and expanded their capabilities and efficiencies with digital technologies.

We now have the digital tools and the talent to stage a real transformation in government. A digital mindset is a different way of thinking about customers, products, and process. It’s faster, iterative, and adaptable. And if government adopts it, the changes can be revolutionary. —William Eggers

A call comes into a child-abuse hotline, and a child protective service worker is dispatched—sometimes in a timely fashion, sometimes not. If a child is found to be in imminent danger, it’s the beginning of a hopelessly fragmented, linear process involving caseworkers, the courts, health care, children’s advocates, community service providers, family, friends, schools, and potentially law enforcement. Kids can get quickly lost, shuffled off to some institution, a system that’s neither child- nor family-friendly, nor is it particularly hospitable to those working inside the system.

And in most jurisdictions, the confusion among key players is embedded in information technology systems. Old and outdated desktop applications require caseworkers to slog through page after page of often irrelevant questions, required checks, and input boxes. The systems are often accessible only from the office and shut out key players such as courts or service providers. Caseworkers can’t access or update case files from the field, much less locate the information in a quick, intuitive manner. The IT systems are designed, it seems, to chain caseworkers to their desks and eat up their time when they could be in the field serving clients.

The same types of problems exist in other human service areas, including such large-scale programs as welfare, income assistance, and food stamps. These linear processes don’t accommodate exceptions, aren’t easily accessible to either workers or clients, and aren’t integrated with other systems.

The inefficiency and opacity of these high-stakes, high-cost programs have for years stymied and frustrated the staff, advocates, and clients who care most about them. But the world of children and family services is on the cusp of a revolution.

In this transformed world, a new generation of web- and cloud-based IT allows for rapid access to key information about cases from virtually anywhere. Take the new child welfare system in New South Wales, Australia. Called ChildStory, it sounds like an IT system built around individual children, and that’s precisely what it is.

“Really early on, we understood that naming a project ‘Frontline replacement systems’ was not going to talk to people, and ChildStory was the one that stuck because what we’re trying to drive through all this is a child-centered conversation,” explains program co-director Lisa Alonso Love.1

ChildStory flips the traditional needs-based service-delivery model of social service, making the child the focus of the system and—more importantly—one of its actual users. “We’re really trying to turn this whole thing on its head,” says co-director Greg Wells.

For example, one of ChildStory’s unique capabilities is the “digital suitcase.” It’s essentially a repository in which children and their caretakers collect photos, videos, documents, school reports, and other digital memorabilia. Such items are often lost as children move around within the system or leave care. “This will preserve their history, the way that our parents would do for us,” Love says. The value of that virtual suitcase is enormous, both to children and to those responsible for them, and it fits neatly with ChildStory’s system, allowing caseworkers to swiftly and easily track a child’s relationships and support networks. It was designed with input from frontline workers—the build crew conducted 205 co-design workshops, two dozen work shadows, and close to 100 interviews.

Placing the child at the center of the system impacts how employees approach their work. “If you’re writing in a system, and the child that you’re writing about is going to see that information, you automatically do it in a more respectful way,” Love says. The team at the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services, and particularly those involved in developing ChildStory, hope the project will serve as an exemplar of what’s possible for government. “This shows that this way of doing digital not only works, but in most cases, it delivers a better result,” says Martin Stewart-Weeks, a director at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation. “I would like to think this would be the virus—spread and caught by other parts of the public service.”2

Systems such as ChildStory illustrate how improving human services systems requires thoughtful redesign, not just better IT. The system for too long has been rooted in the view that clients—in this case, children—are incapable of or interested in accessing services or managing their own cases. Current design forces government to do all the heavy lifting. And so the major change here is one of mindset: the clear recognition that agencies are serving unique individuals who want to be and should be actively engaged.

Public officials around the world are working on similar systems for other benefits, such as food stamps and job training. These new case-management systems try to identify real needs rather than just eligibility for benefits. They free staff from walking applicants through separate, multipage paper applications for each separate program. Web-based integrated systems also have the potential to greatly simplify the process for people applying for a new program or reestablishing their eligibility for an existing one. An applicant who authorizes access to information already available in online files can turn what was once drudge work into a one-stop process.

Finally, these new systems enable governments to generate much more useful reports on how citizens use services. That allows them to more accurately track whether programs are working and better understand how to improve them.

This excerpt is adapted from Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government by William D. Eggers and is printed with permission from RosettaBooks.