This is the second in an article series based on the paper "Gaining Ground: A Guide to Facilitating Technology Innovation in Human Services."
For nearly two decades of operation, Allegheny County - the second largest county in Pennsylvania and home to the Pittsburgh metropolitan area – has benefited from an innovative technology project intended to create a more efficient and data-driven environment for the delivery of human services. Known as the Data Warehouse, this tool has enabled county administrators to learn more about individual clients and address gaps in coverage. For example, the Data Warehouse’s powerful “client matching algorithm” has helped county officials recognize and serve individuals with multiple needs. For example, from 2005 to 2006, the number of children in child welfare also receiving mental health services climbed from 26 percent to 44 percent—reflecting an improved ability to identify at-risk children with multiple needs.
The story of the Data Warehouse – and how it came about – is a prime example of how communities and governments can leverage new technology to improve human services administration.
The Challenge of Disconnected Systems
In January 1996, a nonpartisan committee of community leaders released a report called ComPAC 21, outlining a strategy to enable Allegheny County to compete and prosper in the 21st century. Among other suggestions, the report called for an integrated Department of Human Services (DHS), bringing together previously separate departments focused on child services, mental health and intellectual disability, aging and other areas.
The recommendations came at an urgent time in the county—one national advocacy organization noted that, at the time, Allegheny County’s child welfare services “were known as a national disgrace.” Technology at DHS certainly wasn’t helping. Outdated data systems could not provide administrators basic and essential information and could not actively communicate with one another. The fragmentation of data among programs was also felt by Pittsburgh’s vibrant network of foundations and community providers. One community partner recalled that “just the ability to know what agencies were out there, who were they serving—it was a morass.”
To solve this pressing issue, the head of the newly-consolidated DHS went to this philanthropic network to seek support in updating the technology used to support Allegheny County families. The plea was heard, and the foundations came together to form the still-existing Human Services Integration Fund (HSIF), a dedicated resource for administrative projects within DHS that could not be funded through traditional state or federal funding streams. The HSIF partnership helped support the process of integrating into a single Department, arranged for pro bono organizational and financial support, and helped incubate the new ideas.
At first, the project hit a roadblock. Carnegie Mellon University studied the problem of disconnected local data and told DHS that a fully integrated system was impossible. Then private sector stakeholders came forward with a different approach. Recalls a senior DHS official, the “Chamber [of Commerce] got involved [with] the [Chief Information Officers] of local groups such as PNC Bank, and they said, ‘Rather than one system, why not go to a data warehouse?’” The advantage of a data warehouse approach was in the ability to maintain existing “source systems” within program areas while linking the data at the client level between these systems to provide a more comprehensive view. Local foundations assisted in drafting a Request-for-Proposal, and, with $2.8 million in foundation funding, the Pittsburgh Foundation signed a contract on behalf of Allegheny County with Deloitte Consulting to build the initial “Data Warehouse.”
Addressing Staff Hesitations
Despite the idea’s appeal to community stakeholders, there were several initial concerns in implementing the Data Warehouse within DHS. Early on, administrators had trepidations about staff acceptance of the new technology tool, fearing that personnel might be daunted by the new technology. For these reasons, DHS was eager leverage partnerships, including with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, to help teach about organizational change and help acclimate workers to the new tools.
From there, DHS sought to informally identify and cultivate internal champions within each program area. One administrator noted the importance of these individuals, and the county used “the excited ones to win over people.” Over time, the process has been iterative, with management setting goals and working to bring managers and frontline staff on board, while those staff provide ongoing input to improve and update the systems. A senior administrator noted that “the higher-level folks appreciate the data and use it, and we’re working on bringing it down to the case level.”
Improving the Tool
While the Data Warehouse has been a firmly established asset in Allegheny County for some time, DHS and its community partners have continuously sought to build on the initial project. One prominent example came with a recent agreement to partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), allowing for data sharing. The initial idea had been met with skepticism. As one community partner noted, the school district had “a bad history with past researchers, so there was trauma about what we were doing to their kids rather than improving outcomes for DHS kids in the system.”
Addressing these concerns, DHS enlisted the assistance of trusted community partners who were able to credibly vouch for the project’s value to the school board, including a former school board member sitting on City Council and a former local United States Attorney, both in strong standing in the community. The ensuing partnership has led to a much deeper understanding of the human service involvement of PPS students and their families, use of school data to reduce disruption when DHS removes a child from the home, and important analysis on factors influencing chronic absenteeism. DHS has since built on this partnership and signed additional data sharing agreements with eight additional school districts in the county.
Less than two decades removed from an era of bureaucratic silos and poor outcomes, Allegheny County has transformed into one of the leading human services agencies in the country. The success of the Data Warehouse illustrates the importance of foundations for initial assistance to those seeking to replicate this success. From logistical support to financing to legal assistance, the Human Services Integration Fund proved an invaluable catalyst for Allegheny County’s efforts to better serve its residents.