January/February 2015 Issue
Social Services Software: Beyond Required Reporting — There's Much More in Your Software
If you've been around the social services sector for any length of time, you've heard the following terms: performance outcomes, success indicators, program benchmarks, data submission, and accountability. Organizations face increased pressure to justify their programs via reporting in order to maintain funding and support. Government bodies and funders specify a range of reporting criteria that programs must adhere to, while program managers cross their fingers and hope the report numbers will convey the value of their programs and the work being done.
For many organizations, compliance with these reporting requirements becomes a labor-intensive and time-consuming endeavor, and additional data analysis is often neglected as a result. This is unfortunate, as broader data analysis can be of great benefit to an organization and the clients being served.
Assessing Program Patterns and Trends
Electronic records and software systems generally allow workers to record client information more quickly and efficiently than can be done on paper alone. Web-based software tools also make it possible for social workers to easily access client information while out in the community. But if these are the only ways that the system is being used, the system and its data are both being underutilized. There's a wealth of valuable information available through additional data analysis. Most software systems have a mechanism for extracting all of the data items inputted, either through built-in reports or custom report-writing tools. This means an organization can analyze multiple variables and assess correlations between seemingly unrelated variables, without being limited to the criteria and constraints of their funders.
Linking Outcomes to the Larger Health Care Sector
This is the type of data analysis that Geoff Hennessey, founder of Roxy Software Inc., would like to see organizations engage in. Hennessey has been providing software solutions to the social services sector for more than 10 years, and believes that the right type of data analysis can help organizations make a compelling case for continued funding in the midst of cutbacks. "Community support and crisis intervention both lead to cost savings for the larger health care sector," Hennessey says, "and that has far-reaching social impact and financial impact. If you can show a relationship between support services provided and decreased dependency on more costly health services, that's a major benefit to the health care system on a whole."
This type of meaningful data analysis can be used to inform widespread program planning and the development of best practices. As Jamieson explains, "It's not just about numerical success; it's about the client's perspective. What's beneficial for clients is going through the system and successfully graduating out. This creates capacity."
While there is no guarantee that the knowledge gained from such analysis will translate into an immediate increase in program funding, it can provide valuable insight into program strengths and areas to target for further development. It can reveal information that isn't always apparent during the course of day-to-day worker activities. It can also shed light on progress and program achievements. This information serves as a valuable tool in the hands of managerial staff for the purposes of program planning and evaluation. When communicated to frontline workers, this information is useful not only for providing guidance and direction, but also as a source of motivation by demonstrating how workers' daily efforts are contributing to the big picture.
Ease the Pressure, Shine a Light on Success
A second source of pressure for frontline workers pertains to how the data entered are interpreted and what they convey—or fail to convey. Does the required reporting really capture the work being done? Does it capture specific achievements? Does the reporting explain the "why" behind time spent on various activities? In other words, can workers be assured that the report numbers are providing funders and stakeholders with a true picture of what's going on? Are the program's accomplishments and client successes truly being identified? Taking the time to perform some additional analysis on the data collected might not resolve these concerns and issues entirely, but it can help. It offers an opportunity to shine a light on performance, progress, achievements, and outcomes that are directly relevant to the program and its staff.
Overcoming Limited Time and Resources
Another option is collaboration between a group of organizations in order to make the most of limited financial, staff, and technical resources. Jamieson points out that this approach provides an added benefit for smaller organizations, as it provides them with access to a larger dataset for reference. Both Jamieson and Hennessey see collaboration between organizations as offering enormous potential, due to the increased technical options and cost savings it provides. As Hennessey says, "You've got multiple organizations collecting all this data—there's so much you can do with it. The data and the technology are there; you have the potential for some highly informative analysis to help guide program objectives."
Most social service organizations have come to accept that required reporting is here to stay. For the purpose of widespread program evaluation and accountability across the sector, this type of reporting has an important role to play. But organizations need to be aware that beyond their required reporting, additional reporting and data analysis can be a huge asset. The data contained within an organization's software system can provide an increased understanding of program activities and client needs. With this valuable information, organizations are better positioned to strategize around managing staff, improving programs, and serving clients.
— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.