By Adam Petrovsky, GovEd Practice Leader, Logicalis US
Nearly everyone has read or heard a tragic story that was the result of something slipping through the cracks because an overworked social worker had too large of a caseload. What if this could be changed simply by digitally enabling some of the time-consuming, behind-the-scenes documentation tasks that take up so much of a typical social worker’s day?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the typical social worker has an average caseload of more than 12 cases, which means they’re dealing with as many as 70 individual people at a time. A 2016 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, however, noted that social workers typically spend only 20 to 35 percent of their time in direct contact with their clients, while 60 to 70 percent of their time is spent on other case-related activities.
With a growing number of caseloads to manage, this imbalance of time spells problems for the social workers themselves as well as the government agencies and citizens they serve. The obvious goal is to increase the amount of time these valuable public servants spend in the field while maintaining best practices in their documentation and other non-client-facing activities.
By examining what a government agency does and asking ourselves how we can digitally enable some of those functions, we can help local government CIOs transform their organizations’ efficiency and productivity in meaningful and cost-effective ways. Using technology, we can deliver a variety of virtual tools and self-service portals that can help eliminate inefficiencies, allowing social workers to better serve their constituents and better manage their caseloads. And we can help those CIOs deliver more consequential data to county boards of supervisors which can result in larger monetary distributions to those agencies from the state and federal government.
Four Ways to Virtualize Social Work and Improve Outcomes
While some of the human elements of social work are essential, many of the processes that add inefficiency can be modified or even eliminated with advanced technology solutions. Thus, the idea of the “virtualized social worker” is one that local governments are beginning to embrace. What does it look like in practice? The following are four examples.
Self Service Portals
Just as you can renew your own driver’s license online today, in this client-focused model, tools for common requests can be established on an online portal or via a mobile application to allow better access to social services once the client is established in the system. This self-service approach can eliminate tasks that were previously done manually, sometimes submitted in-person with the social worker’s help, or via US mail which required data entry when the data was received. With the right technology in place, weekly reports, required submissions of documents, and even photos can be uploaded and processed digitally by the clients themselves, dramatically reducing the overall behind-the-scenes data entry work that has become a bottleneck for caseworkers nationwide.
Almost everyone has a mobile device with a camera or can access a public facility or kiosk close to them that is video-enabled. By providing collaboration and scheduling tools along with conveniently located public portals or mobile applications, social workers can perform virtual visits with their clients while the application automatically records and documents the visit. Imagine the social worker who holds virtual office visits from 9 a.m. to noon once a week; how many more visits could be worked into that timeframe virtually than if the caseworker had to drive to each individual location. This kind of digital enablement does not entirely eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction and interventions, of course, but with the right communication and collaboration tools, routine checks can easily be virtualized. And in many social situations, the more frequent these routine checks, the better the outcome for the case.
While most local government social services agencies already use a call center for incoming service requests, the actual services that can be addressed there are minimal. But, by integrating these call centers with email, databases, applications, the Internet and the cloud, a much more robust modern contact center evolves – one that can provide “virtual social work” on the fly. As systems become fully digitized, call center employees will be able to use these kinds of integrated capabilities to tap into cases, to document interactions in real time, to compare historical information before decisions are made, and even to complete typical requests that previously required a lengthy manual cycle before any action could be taken. In a fully leveraged and digitized contact center, any client that can authenticate themselves adequately can take advantage of real-time social services right on the call.
As more and more data becomes digitized, the more that data can be gathered, analyzed and used to search for trends. Not only is this valuable to help the ongoing effort to provide better services to the public, but it also allows for analytical evaluation of “data pointers” which can predict outcomes and even indicate fraudulent activity. The Department of Public Social Services in Los Angeles, for example, has already put this to the test: Its Data Mining Solution for Child Care Welfare Fraud Detection sorts through childcare case files and identifies situations that may be more likely to involve fraudulent activity. While the tool does not replace trained investigators, it identifies and prioritizes the cases which need to be reviewed more closely.
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