Smarter Planet Leadership Series Alameda County Social Services Agency Brings Business Values To Social Services In his 10 years working at the North County Self Sufficiency Leadership Center in Oakland, California, Don Edwards has never forgotten why he took the job. He reminds himself every morning when Spotlight At the Alameda County Social he goes to the lobby to survey the scene—the tapestry of Services Agency, Don Edwards is citizens who have come here for help—and asks himself what leading an effort to bring business practices—like efficiency, short he can do to make their life better. As the Assistant Director lines and happy customers— of Administration and Information Services for the Alameda to the realm of social services. County Social Services Agency, the tools Edwards brings to How Alameda County bear are technology and an energetic desire to transform the Got Smarter way the county serves its customers. Like most social service agencies, Alameda has witnessed a series of challenging trends, the most On the shor t elevator ride to the agency’s four th floor prominent of which is the need to administrative suite, Edwards is philosophical about what he do more with less. It’s doing so by giving its caseworkers the tools tosees. “Sometimes it looks fine,” he says. “Other times the line goes in one door be more proactive in helping theirand out the other.” Apart from such day-to-day patterns, Edwards has also clients get the assistance they need. Leveraging IBM Cognostaken note of a deeper trend, one that’s seen in the “new” faces that account business intelligence software,for growing share of the agency’s limited resources. “In this economic climate, Alameda can get a seamless “lifecycle” of view of its customers’we’re seeing a change in the demographic profile of who we serve,” explains interaction with social serviceEdwards. “More than ever, we’re seeing people coming from businesses that resources. Instead of a patchwork, the agency’s departments canhave closed—people who not only look different from our traditional base, but coordinate their service delivery,also have higher expectations for service.” while at the same time removing the gaps between systems where fraud can thrive. In fact, the county’s new reporting system has already saved $11 million by cutting waste and fraud. Let’s Build a Smarter Planet
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.” The Benefits of Alameda’s Smarter Social Service • $11 million in direct savings through fraud and waste reductionToward Smarter Social Service Delivery • Gives managers and caseworkers a deep, real-time understanding Edwards recognized that to realize this vision, the agency needed to facilitate a more intelligent of case and program status, enabling them to find the best interaction with customers, with caseworkers able to spot needs or problems as—or even before assistance programs for—they emerged. In the realm of social services, gleaning such insights requires a holistic view of each situationthe customer that takes into account not one facet of a customer’s life, but many—and from it • Reveals relationships between benefit recipients and programs, assembles a comprehensive profile of his needs and services. The fact that each of the agency’s helping to eliminate waste, fraud five departments had its own separate system—disconnected from the whole—made this more and redundancyseamless approach to social service delivery impracticable. Edwards’s goal was to put in place a • Generates reports in minutes instead of weeks or months— system that would change that. allowing caseworkers to apply their expertise by trying “what if” scenarios based on current data
The initiative Edwards had in mind epitomized his mission within the agency—to drive efficiency andoperational excellence through innovation. To gain the approval needed to proceed, he needed tosell the concept on two levels. The first and most direct audience was his colleagues (also AssistantDirectors) who headed the agency’s four focal areas: Child Welfare, Welfare, Adults and Aging andWelfare to Work and Administration, as well as the agency’s Director to whom they all reported. WhileEdwards had established a solid track record, his fellow executives, leery of anything that distractedthem 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 caseperformance from the “global” agency level down to the worker, and all levels in between—that wasthe stuff of managerial wish lists. But what turned the corner for Edwards was his decision to followto the dictum “show, don’t tell.” After working with IBM to develop a working proof of concept of the Leadership is: Show, don’t tell.solution, Edwards put it on the desktop of his colleagues to give them a taste of what it could do. In selling the agency’s executives“From that point,” he says, “the executives went from skeptical leaders to champions of the project.” 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 AgencySecuring funding for the project required the approval of the five-member Alameda County Boardof 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 onthe efficiency, cost savings and improved level of service the proposed solution would enable. “Ourmessage resonated with the need for the agency—and the county as a whole—to overcome a hostof significant economic and social challenges,” says Edwards. “Our focus wasn’t on technology, but Lessons Learned:ontools that let our employees work smarter and better handle their caseload.” Soft-pedal the technology angle “One of the keys to making thisAfter approval and a two-month implementation, Alameda had a working solution it calls the Social happen was a strong focus onServices Integrated Reporting System (SSIRS). The key to SSIRS effectiveness is its ability to present the business side from the beginning. To that end, wea single, seamless view of its customers’ relationship with Alameda’s social services agencies over the brought the program peoplecourse of their lives. It can show, for example, a child moving through foster care to his emancipation and the management together and essentially gave them theas an adult, where he or she may still receive food stamps and other welfare benefits. Once in reins. We took their feedbackadulthood, SSIRS can show how a family grows or changes over time, through deaths, births and as guidance on the design of the solution.” (Edwards)changes in marital status. Such tracking is a means to a greater end. Because agencies can see thewhole picture of a customer’s life across the entir span of services, they’re able to coordinate theirservice 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 staf f 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” PossibleConsider typical caseworkers—besieged, inundated and doing the best they can. Asking them to bemore proactive in managing their customers isn’t always a realistic proposition—because they simplydon’t have the tools. SSIRS changes this by introducing a layer of intelligence that helps uncoverneeds 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 thather food stamp annual review is past due or coming up, she can address it before she’s cut off, so shedoesn’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 byenabling 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 notentitled to—is one of its biggest sources. Its perpetrators thrive on the gaps between systems thatpermit them to “game” the system without being detected: people who collect benefits from twoaddresses or from stolen IDs, to name a few MOs. When Alameda brought SSIRS online, it acquiredalmost overnight the means to pinpoint fraud that has long been difficult to detect and even harderto prove. As Edwards explains, the cost and difficulty of pulling information together had compelledAlameda to make painful choices. “In effect, we were forced to set a bar—a threshold—in terms of thecost we’d be willing to bear to pursue these people,” says Edwards. “What SSISRS does is lower thebar 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 forthose who deserve them.”