Bridging the Gap Between People and Public Services

By Rachael Stephens • February 17, 2015

Human services administrators have long known the challenges in connecting citizens with the services they need in order to gain access to food, housing, job training, and more, but technology is proving a valuable resource in breaking down the barriers between services and clients. Several cities and counties across the country have aggregated their service directories into centrally-managed online referral tools to get clients connected quickly and easily to the right services, with less time and energy spent by overburdened social workers and service administrators.

One such website that has made headlines in recent years is Aunt Bertha, born of a developer’s desire to help others find the kinds of services he had difficulty tracking down when his mother got sick. The site is designed to allow people to search for services based on their zip code and the types of assistance they are looking for, or even based on search terms like the name of a drug users have recently been prescribed. Information on services and programs provided by federal, state, city, neighborhood and nonprofit programs all appear in location-based search results. Aunt Bertha operates nationally, but its in-depth coverage is currently concentrated in a few areas, including the state of Texas (where it was founded), Richmond, Virginia, and, as of August of this year, New York City. So far just over 100,000 people have used Aunt Bertha to connect with programs and services ranging from food stamps to employment services to health care, and that number promises to grow as Aunt Bertha expands. Aunt Bertha invites cities to seek partnerships to bring their services to their populations.

This example comes as part of a broader trend towards open data and interoperability in the human service sector. Code for America, a nonprofit that aims to bring the benefits of good technology and design to the public sector, recently launched the Ohana API from its test pad in San Mateo County, California. Ohana is now generalized and easy to redeploy as a tool that can transform any siloed resource directory into an open platform. The Ohana project and Code for America, in turn, have sponsored the Open Referral Initiative. Open Referral is working in partnership with a diverse mix of referral providers, collaborating around the development of an open, interoperable data model that can break down institutional and technological barriers to open and accessible resource directory data. In addition to the San Francisco Bay Area, Open Referral is also supporting the DC Open211 project and other pilots across the country.

Some cities are moving beyond service directory aggregation to building portals that use algorithms to assess client’s needs and recommend services and programs in their area. In addition to working with Aunt Bertha, New York City’s department of Health and Human Services also built HHS-Connect as part of its One City initiative, which sought to reduce barriers to accessing services and connect citizens directly with relevant programs. HHS-Connect is designed to empower caseworkers to better serve New Yorkers by removing information silos and integrating New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Homeless Services, the Human Resources Administration and other services. HHS-Connect provides three main products: ACCESS NYC, a benefits eligibility and matching tool; Worker Connect, a tool enabling human service agency employees to quickly and easily coordinate care with other agencies and caseworkers; and an enterprise case management development program focusing on developing a common software platform that can be used seamlessly by all human service agencies in the city. The sum effect of these three products is not only helping clients and caregivers find and give better services, but also ensuring that better systems are developed and that, eventually, the entire city will run on a common integrated platform.

The Department of Human Services in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, which includes the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, began developing its Data Warehouse in 1999, which was recently updated to include a “client matching algorithm” designed to help improve human services administration by assessing clients’ needs and matching them to the appropriate programs. The Data Warehouse currently holds an impressive 15 million client records and can report data in real time, making user analysis far easier than it once was for service administrators. Its Data Warehouse matching system has proven impressively effective; for example, in just one year the number of children in child welfare also receiving mental health services rose from 26 to 44 percent, reflecting an increased ability to assess these children's needs and find them the appropriate services using their new matching system.

These initiatives demonstrate the immense impact that websites and apps can have on reducing the separation between human services and citizens by providing centrally-managed referral systems. With more developers and partners growing interested in client matching platforms, programs like HHS-Connect and the Data Warehouse have the potential to become the new norm for efficient service provision.

About the Author

Rachael Stephens

Rachael Stephens is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Research Assistant at Data-Smart City Solutions. She earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Bryn Mawr College, where she focused on urban economic development and community engagement. Previously, Rachael developed and managed programs at an innovative workforce development nonprofit serving low-income adults in New York City.