By Barbara Blumenthal - Funders dream about collecting data from agencies that will answer important questions about participant progress and agency performance.
Yet, many social service agencies, including large and prominent ones, have little capacity to track program performance, either for their own use or to share with funders.
A key reason is that many social service agencies lack program management applications – software that supports the collection and reporting of all information needed by managers and front line staff to operate efficiently, improve quality and assess program outcomes.
In our work with agencies, we find that the lack of data is not a failure of agency leadership. Many agency leaders have spent years and scarce resources trying to develop workable solutions. Yet, many remain unsatisfied with their access to useful data. It is time to examine why agencies have not made more progress.
Data Starved Agencies
Despite advances in software, many agencies are now Data Starved. Surprisingly, many agencies do not have an internal program management application (sometimes referred to as case management, client management or performance based management system), so their data resides in spreadsheets, word documents and paper files. As any manager knows, information that is difficult to locate and time consuming to compile is simply not used.
Large and small private sector companies have long relied on business applications – either custom-built systems or commercial software - tailored to support their management processes. Any business executive would find it challenging to manage with few facts and no ability to track progress against goals. It is even more difficult to imagine a venture capitalist investing funds in a business that did not have internal databases to manage their primary products, services, and clients.
So why do so many social service agencies operate without internal program applications? Two major hurdles stand out. First is the rise of funder-mandated compliance databases; and second, the underdeveloped marketplace for some types of program applications.
Unintended consequences of mandated databases
Agency efforts to improve productivity and program quality are undermined by funder mandated systems that require direct data entry. In order to monitor grantees’ compliance with contracts and grants, funders need data about participants and activities – such as, how many meals did you serve, or how many days did participants attend your programs. As many city, state and federal agencies implemented online databases to replace paper reports, some have required agency staff to enter data manually into online systems, typically updating one participant record at a time. Generally, these systems only track program activities.
But to improve performance, agency leaders need more than just activity data. In Diagram 1, an agency has implemented its own program application, and can collect the data it needs. It is also able to upload data to funders, not only about activities but outcomes as well. Diagram 2 depicts the more common situation -- data about outcomes and operations are simply not collected by the agency, as it lacks corresponding data about participants and programs. Mandated data entry leaves a gaping hole at the agency, where critical management data should exist.
Over the past 20 years, information technology has produced enormous benefits in the private sector, with dramatic improvements in both productivity and the quality of products and services. Such payoffs are simply not attainable where agencies do not control data collection. In any number of markets (such as youth programs or senior centers) excellent products have been developed that provide managers with the information needed to improve productivity and quality. But these products are often frozen out of major urban markets where city and state agencies have imposed direct data entry. Across the country, many of the largest and most prominent agencies in urban areas, serving the most vulnerable populations, are not using “best in class” applications, and instead rely on a combination of mandated databases, excel and paper.
Of course, a Data Starved agency can implement a parallel database - an agency controlled program application that tracks whatever data the agency needs. With some exceptions, agencies are then forced to enter data twice – into their internal system, and again (manually) into the mandated database.
There is another approach. Some forward thinking funders have designed systems that allow agencies to upload data, thereby eliminating the need for duplicate data entry. With this approach, every agency can collect the data it chooses for internal management and, with the push of a button, provide data required by funders. The ability to upload data should be recognized as a key to high performing agencies, and become a shared principle for all funders, both government and private.
The marketplace for program software
The second daunting challenge is to find an affordable program application that meets an agency’s needs. While new web-based applications suggest exciting possibilities, more needs to be done. Many agencies, particularly multi-service agencies, find the applications that they know about to fall short. The shortcomings are varied, and include:
- Multi-service agencies can end up with a dozen “best in class” applications that support each program area (such as youth programs, shelters or senior programs), but have no ability to track participants or families across an agency’s programs.
- An application comes as a “blank slate” where the agency can build any business process or report. But that can leave agencies with a lot of building to do. Customizable templates by service area would provide a better starting point, and reduce the cost of building the application.
- An application focuses too narrowly on participant activities and outcomes, and does not provide access to other data needed by front line managers to run the program. Leases, facility work-orders, and human resource information are equally important to delivering a quality program.
- An application focuses only on managing operations and tracking activities, but does not support outcome tracking with pre-built, research-based assessment tools and reports.
- Reporting is difficult. Agencies using the software employ one or more full time staff just to generate reports.
- User interfaces are challenging for staff, creating training retention and data quality issues.
Our view is that many agency leaders are hungry for improved applications. Even agencies that seem to have it figured out, and are known for their ability to report on program outcomes, are struggling internally to make it work. Many are on the lookout for better options.
This view from inside agencies suggests that software developers have work to do. Underdeveloped products could reflect the relatively small market size for software, especially for multiservice applications. The elimination of mandated data entry would open up significant new markets, particularly in urban areas, and stimulate investments in new and improved software.
A Data Collaborative for Collective Action
Individual agencies cannot convince a major city agency (much less federal) to allow data uploads, or influence software vendors to add important features or reduce the price tag. But there is hope that a collaborative effort, supported by investments from the field, can provide breakthroughs that are desperately needed.
In discussions with agency leaders, there seems to be interest in a Data Collaborative focused on several goals:
- Affordable, quality software tools
- Affordable consulting support
- A vehicle for agency sharing and learning
- Efficient funder reporting
The next step is to bring together a core group of agency leaders, IT experts and funders who understand the challenges facing data-starved agencies. This group will identify specific projects and set priorities. Early discussions have already identified a number of exciting ideas, including:
- Provide a web-based exchange, so that agencies can share information about applications, consultants, and management lessons. Some topics require national sharing. For example, there may well be an application in Denver that meet an agency’s needs, but is not yet known in the NYC region.
- Commission a comparison report of leading applications with analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each product.
- Provide a forum for exchanging ideas both online and in person. Agencies just getting started want to learn from peers who are further along. Leading agencies are just as anxious to learn from their peers on more advanced topics, such as integration with HR and Finance databases, management development and leading culture change.
- Develop a toolkit to guide agency managers in rethinking and designing their business processes – prior to implementing a new application.
Too many agencies are starving for data. With a little collective effort, many agencies will be able to move into the 21st century.