Human Services Tech in the Age of COVID-19

Jun 5, 2020, 13:00 PM by HSITAG
HSITAG members share how their organizations are using technology to help in the changing face of service delivery in human services during these unique times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected traditional norms across every facet of our society and is rapidly changing the face of service delivery in human services.

As a leading organization of vendors in the health and human services sector, HSITAG (Human Services Information Technology Advisory Group) is a great source of different opinions about technology and its impact on the human services sector. And we all believe that technology has a role to play in transforming human services.

So we asked members of our organization to think through how technology will help in the changing face of service delivery in human services.

Here is a sample of areas where technology has worked alongside essential personnel to help fight this invisible enemy.

Dealing with Volume

The double impact of a pandemic and a financial crisis has substantially increased demand for government services.

Teri Lewis, of Accenture’s Health and Human Services group, shared how quickly the response moved from idea to implementation.

“At the onset of the pandemic, technical teams geared up to transition entire departments of personnel to work remotely,” she said.  “Shoring up telephony systems to automatically route calls to personnel across the state and directing callers to the worker best able to assist has alleviated some of the business continuity issues states were facing.  When the surge of calls increased exponentially, Artificial Intelligence tools were used to create “virtual” assistants to take on questions, provide answers, and direct callers to the right place for the right help, freeing up to focus on more critical tasks.”

Patty Donaldson, from Diona, showed us how mobile could be a source of support in the space.

“Citizens have turned to government for help but encountered limited self-service channels, making it difficult to apply for benefit assistance programs they need,” said Donaldson. “Mobile technology is now enabling government organizations to rapidly create self-service channels to enable citizens to apply for benefits without the need to visit an office, print out forms or separately send documentation. Individuals are engaging with government through their smartphones or tablets – the technology they have most readily available to them – in the same way they transact with their bank or order food from their local grocery.”

“In the high touch world of human services, a nationwide shutdown could have been seen as a total disaster but the use of cloud and mobile technology-enabled agencies in both the public and private sector to transition quickly to a new normal” said Tristan Louis, of Casebook PBC.

In child welfare, a vertical where face to face contact was once considered essential, technology helped fill the gap quickly, as pointed out by Carole Hussey from KPMG US.

“As one of the most high-touch programs in human services, one could wonder how it is even possible for human services to serve and protect children in a global pandemic,” said Hussey. “This crisis has spawned creativity and collaboration that will hopefully be sustained. Technology is supporting child welfare casework with enhanced mobility tools, video-conferencing for visits, and data analytics to inform key decision making for modified service responses. And let’s not forget all the children who found their forever homes through the courts’ use of video to finalize adoptions.”

 What’s next?

Vijay Ravichandran, of Infosys Public Services, highlighted that many of the quick changes that were made to existing systems might have to be updated.

“The IT systems handling these benefits had to be tweaked, configured and updated to accommodate these temporary changes,” he said. “In a couple of months, when ‘normal’ happens, whatever that looks like, the agencies not only have to figure out a way to reverse all the system changes with minimum impact, but also think about preparing the right foundation to handle something like this in the future.

One option might be to make a comprehensive list of functions or features that would require an ‘override’ and build that into the system. However, this is not just an IT issue to solve, rather, something where policy, operations and IT teams need to come together to understand and address.”

Karen Rewalt, of IBM Watson Health, struck a more optimistic note, highlighting what she considers the 4Cs of technology in human services: Continuous Transformation, Cloud, Chatbots, and Citizen Engagement.

“Governments are working tirelessly to respond to citizen’s needs with citizen engagement through secure, reliable, user- and mobile-friendly portals,” she said.  “Chatbots are helping citizens avoid information overload by answering frequently asked questions, and directing citizens to where they need to apply for assistance. 

As legacy benefit systems struggle to cope with enormous demands, the digital transformation challenge has intensified, highlighting the need for a continuous transformation approach. As applications for benefits such as unemployment, food and medical assistance increase, cloud has been spotlighted to quickly scale systems to meet demands.”

“States who had the foresight to build self-service technology into their application process (mobile applications, chat, text, easy to use portals) have empowered clients to manage their benefits without worker intervention,” adds Lewis. “Tools and processes were brought to market quickly to collect, interpret, and use data to manage the impact of the virus and contain the spread.  Patient testing, contact tracing, and daily reporting of outbreaks has been made possible through a multi-disciplinary approach that includes mobile tools, contact centers, social media, and data insights.  Technology partners will continue to drive better ways to support agencies across the country now and into the future—whatever that may be.”

“What this crisis has shown is that when the will exists, we can all move mountains together,” added Louis. “We have seen years of human services digital transformation happen within a very few weeks. The question now remains as to whether the gains that were made in the last few months, thanks to technology-enabled decision-making tools, will be seen as important enough to leverage in the future. We are already hearing from some states that this crisis has forced them to rethink how technology could help, moving their mindset from “no it will never work” to “how do we leverage technology for better service delivery”. If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be how that mindset change can help improve outcomes for the most vulnerable members of our society.”

And if you want to see how that story continues developing, stay in touch with HSITAG, as its members and partners are there to drive this bright new future.