Modernizing Technology for Change (Part 3): Technology-Enabled Change

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

People are at the center of all we do as human services leaders. From the families we serve to the staff carrying out the services and support of the agency to our community, provider, and agency partners, we are in the business of serving people. As such, it’s difficult to imagine a technology initiative that doesn’t put people at its center, and yet we find too many instances where this is not the case, and the technology itself is instead at the center. The result is often a solution that doesn’t empower end users or enable streamlined service delivery processes to achieve organizational goals.

Agencies around the country are approaching necessary transformation in various ways. This final post in the series spotlights the work occurring in Michigan, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Kentucky. And while all of these projects included some form of technology enablement, common themes that emerged are the emphasis on the people—people being served, people serving, and the goal of impacting communities. Applying science-based methodologies such as behavioral economics and human-centered design takes root in an industry that values academic principles and evidence-based solutions. Including the voice of lived experience, engagement with frontline staff, and an eye toward cross-programmatic service delivery models will maximize the return on technology investments that move the program forward.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) learned this difficult lesson by launching its MI Bridges system that supports Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, LIHEAP, and child care. Lewis Roubal, the Chief Deputy Director of MDHHS, shared that when the system went live 15 years ago, it was not human-centric, and as such, they have been on a modernization journey ever since. “We were among the first states to fully embrace human-centered design (HCD) for an existing system, and we haven’t looked back,” Roubal shared. The MI Bridges developers and testers engage directly with state and local offices. This practice has enabled their team to understand user feedback and effectively make system changes. Since adopting this approach, Chief Deputy Director Roubal also shared that they have received an 80-95% approval rating from users on the system changes.

HCD has become a standard practice of working at MDHHS as the team has expanded human-centered engagement to citizens as well. Through caseworker and citizen engagement, Michigan has redesigned its former 40+ page application for benefits, the online customer experience, and the benefits renewal process.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) also nurtures people-centric culture. With a client-first mindset, an impassioned workforce, and a collaborative spirit, OKDHS is transforming how they serve Oklahomans. Much like Michigan, Oklahoma has developed an HCD thinking continuum. As Justin Brown, Secretary of OKDHS, shared, “By building the elements of design thinking into the agency, the staff uses the concepts in their daily work, not just for designing technology. Frontline staff considers personas in serving citizens and how they might navigate the system differently.” Furthermore, the technology team is no longer separate but embedded into the program teams to streamline efforts. Everyone within the walls of the agency—from frontline staff to division director and Secretary Brown—is grounded in a set of principles called the “True North,” guiding everything they do.

And while OKDHS is further down a path of change, Secretary Brown shared that they are still learning and evolving the changes within their workforce as they consider current impacts and those 5+ years in the future. Innovating to serve citizens is a mindset and way of working at OKDHS. It’s not a one-and-done endeavor. Secretary Brown shared, “You have to live and breathe it. I talk about our True North all the time. You must love it, and it must be grassroots. Everyone knows we are all on the same team. It’s hard at times and requires persistence.”

The Idaho Department of Health and Public Welfare also embraces the concept of putting people at the center of their transformation efforts. With the redesign of its eligibility determination process and the use of enabling technology, Idaho could redefine its workforce and move 175 full-time employees from the back office to the front office. With this momentous change, clients no longer need to schedule interviews and wait to be seen. When they enter an office, they are immediately greeted and directed to their interview. The front office staff conducts an informed choice interview with clients while the eligibility system runs the rules to make the determination of benefits. Clients know which benefits they can receive in under an hour. As Lori Wolff, former Deputy Director, shared, “Technology doesn’t solve problems; people do. Technology sometimes helps along the way.”

The Kentucky Division of Family Support began using behavioral science and HCD as part of their efforts to streamline service delivery related to SNAP Employment and Training (E&T). Their three-step approach includes co-designing solutions with frontline staff, intentionally focusing on “making the training stick” with clear takeaways, and follow-up and feedback loops. One Case Management Specialist shared, “This expanded knowledge gives workers the ability and confidence to talk with our clients in a way that helps them understand the value of this resource.” Supporting workers to better serve clients results in more clients accepting E&T referrals sooner in the process.

Technology can improve productivity and streamline how we work, but it must be informed by not only the people using the technology but the people the agency is serving. Engaging people with lived experience in transformation efforts allows for their voices and ideas to be heard and truly allows an agency to put people at the center. Inviting people with lived experience to co-design process improvements and alter experiences through power-sharing and equity increases the likelihood of acceptance and long-term cultural impacts—inside and outside the agency. A people-centric approach to transformation will naturally invite innovation, eagerness, and progress for meaningful impacts in the communities being served.

Read additional posts from the Modernizing Technology for Change series:
Post 1  |  Post 2  |  Post 3


We would like to thank the following human services leaders for their generous time and contributions to this blog series:
Justin Brown, Secretary of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services
Lori Wolff, former Deputy Director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare
Lewis Roubal, Chief Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Modernizing Technology for Change Series – Blog Post 3

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