Leadership is the key factor in the transformation of human services agencies
Most media tends to emphasize stories about government failure rather than creative success. This fosters a “gloom and doom” mentality around service provision in a trying environment. It is rare for a conference to snap one out of that mindset, by charting a path for agencies that is guided by real results, concrete action steps, and positive peer reinforcement. Ovum recently attended such an event, the 2012 Human Services Summit hosted by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University in conjunction with Accenture and in collaboration with the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). APHSA represents a broad community of health and human services leaders who work together to address shared challenges on an ongoing basis. At the summit, a mixture of local, state, federal, and international health and human services (HHS) leaders converged to share battle stories, case studies, and lessons learned as a means to help their fellow agencies become more outcomes-focused and impact-oriented. Rather than embracing the cynical slogan, “Do less for less,” the result was a roadmap toward agency transformation. Ovum believes these leadership-focused communities of practice are a key component in leveraging technology, people, and process successfully to serve citizens.
Moving from the transactional to the transformational via adaptive leadership
Agency leadership is the most important factor in shifting organizational culture toward a focus on outcomes rather than a “check the box” mentality that is purely transactional. For example, there are major differences in the success of federal benefits usage from state to state; usually, this is due to a commissioner’s ability rather than the governor’s. At the summit, Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School offered a description of the ideal leadership type to enable organizations to survive periods of change, which he calls “adaptive” leadership. The idea is for leaders to find ways to steady their people through the discomfort and opportunities that come with the sustained period of disequilibrium inherent in innovation. For example, they are often successful at defining “big, hairy, audacious goals,” ones that allow employees to place themselves in a greater narrative and re-imagine their work as sexy rather than paper-pushing. Essentially, this echoes a truism eloquently stated by famed management consultant Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Only with shifts in norms and culture can technological or operational change manifest at all levels.
The Human Services Value Curve: a framework for progress
The summit speakers also referred to a concise framework â€“ the Human Services Value Curve â€“ to envision the business model stages through which leaders must guide agencies in their journey toward better outcomes. The first stage is regulative, focusing on serving constituents through a perspective of service eligibility and policy compliance. The second is collaborative, where the agency moves toward supporting eligible constituents by working across programmatic silos. The third stage is integrative, in which the focus of leadership is on the root causes of client needs, addressed through greater service integration. The last stage is generative, in which the focus is on creating healthy communities as a whole via co-creation methods. In Ovum’s view, this framework is also a powerful visualization technique for leaders on the technology side, starting with implementation of basics such as digitizing and storage, and eventually moving to a 360-degree view of stakeholders with realtime transparency, tracking of key performance indicators via integrated dashboards, and multi-channel communications tools facilitating two-way dialog and problem-solving. The complexity of IT reform and its relation to business strategy within larger organizations can be challenging, and this framework provides a way to focus planning and measure progress.
The role of the private sector in communities of practice
The importance of communities of practice as catalysts for leaders, such as the one convened at the Human Services Summit, cannot be overstated. HHS agency leaders at all levels have difficult jobs, dependent upon small wins on shoestring budgets and characterized by massive internal and external pressures. Communities of practice create positive social pressure, networks of resources, and motivational structures upon which leaders can draw in order to charge forward. The role of nonprofit organizations, think tanks, and academic institutions here are generally well understood; less well understood is the role of private sector firms as conveners.
Accenture’s philosophy in this regard, demonstrated at the summit, is instructive: sponsoring, organizing resources, facilitating, and then getting out of the way as practitioners interact. This requires a true commitment to the public sector market on Accenture’s part, and an understanding that more sophisticated and higher-functioning leaders are good for business in the long term. There is a dependent ecosystem of vendors, agencies, and leaders, one that is particularly pronounced in the technology space. This is because sustainable and forward-thinking agency structures and an enabling culture are necessary prerequisites to an agency’s ability to use data-driven decision-making tools effectively. In the long run, this is what creates the demand for technology the first place. Accenture has clearly recognized this.
Nishant Shah, Analyst, Government Technology
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