Modernizing Technology for Change: Leadership and a Shared Vision

By American Public Human Services Association (APHSA)    February 17, 2023

Technology offers vast opportunities for human services agencies to transform service delivery and operations. As evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic when technology met critical needs, enabling a completely remote workforce to process an unprecedented number of applications for benefits. Utilizing technological innovations allows agencies to stay functional and relevant in a changing world. However, technology investments need to be grounded in a vision for change.

As leaders, crafting and sharing a vision provides the big picture while describing what the organization will look like in the future. Defining specific programmatic goals and desired outcomes means that everyone is moving in the right direction and allows all decisions—technology, staffing, or practice—to align.

For example, Justin Brown, Oklahoma Secretary of Human Services and former Agency Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, curated a grass-roots approach to establishing a vision and nurturing commitment. He uses the symbolism of the “True North” to communicate the agency's goals and galvanize the staff to reach the goals together. The True North anchors the staff—from leadership to frontline workers to the technology team—to see the vision and be a part of setting the goals. This allows frontline workers to use the same words as product owners to facilitate communication. This is an approach to prioritizing programs to innovate and serve the state together. Secretary Brown stated, “It took us about 120 days to build three to five guiding principles. Co-developing the principles allowed support divisions to be a part of moving the needle and established the True North for people at all levels. Together, we built four tiers of metrics: program, worker, supervisor, and vendor. The True North foundation allows people to look at the work they do every day as it relates to these goals and the reason they are there.”

The need for leadership and a clear vision for technology-enabled practice change and achieving programmatic goals in human services agencies is widely noted. For example, Urban Institute’s report, States' Use of Technology to Improve Delivery of Benefits: Findings from the Work Support Strategies Evaluation, provides lessons surfaced from six state implementations of new or updated technology to improve and integrate the delivery of Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and child care. The findings indicate that state officials described leadership and vision as critical to ensuring that technological change was successful and served larger state goals. Further, the WSS report notes the importance of program goals and aligning technology to those goals.

A clear vision enables the prioritization of the actual work to move forward quickly while balancing priorities. As you prioritize and do the work, initiatives should be anchored in the vision. Lori Wolff, the former Deputy Director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said, “People can get caught up in how change is going to impact them. If, instead, they are focused on the vision and goals; they can often get on board with the change. Talk about the change in a results-focused way to give them a reason to go on the path with you.” Deputy Director Wolff also indicated, “So often, people focus on tasks and activities rather than results. If you focus on results first, that determines the needed activities.”

Additionally, it is sometimes necessary to reprioritize “on the fly.” For example, the public health emergency (PHE) required agencies to shift both their staffing and service delivery models quickly. Waivers during the PHE enabled agencies to make policy, programmatic, and system changes to respond effectively to COVID-19. As Secretary Brown shared, “When CARES and ARPA happened, we received more money for administration. We used some of this money to develop reusable solutions that addressed the immediate needs of the community at the time but also informed the design of other solutions. These building blocks will contribute to future priorities.” And now, as agencies embark on the PHE unwinding, they are again faced with a need to pivot to resume pre-pandemic routine operations.

Lewis Roubal, Chief Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, has experience in pivoting priorities on their transformation journey. One example surfaced during their move from case-based case management to Universal Case Load (UCL). They had underestimated the impacts of UCL on supervisors. To address this, they needed to shift resources quickly, modify training, and redesign the workflow. Deputy Director Roubal shared, “We conducted many interviews, field visits, and surveys. The team categorized the feedback into change needs for technology, training, processes, and communications. They then prioritized these changes and began a plan to implement them.” Deputy Director Roubal and the team have now incorporated the human-centered design into their planning efforts to identify these areas and manage the cultural impacts proactively.

Leadership and a shared vision rooted in programmatic outcomes set a strong foundation for leaders to prioritize transformation efforts. Technology is one tool, often a necessary tool, to achieve the goals set forth. However, as noted in the aforementioned report, “Technology needs to serve program goals—not the other way around—and strong leadership and a clear vision help make this happen.”

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