For human services agencies across the world, these are challenging and uncertain times—a fact underlined by disruptive events such as the United State's opioid dependency crisis, and the global obesity and diabetes epidemic.
In my view, the sheer scale of challenges like these means traditional siloed approaches to human services are no longer fit for purpose. Instead, all participants involved in designing and delivering human services must rethink the way they operate—and move toward creating “ecosystems of care” focused on outcomes.
What does this mean? In simple terms, a human services ecosystem of care is an agile, collaborative network of organisations, machines and services—all coming together to co-create solutions that address and solve the root causes of today’s individual, family and community human services challenges.
A few weeks ago, I attended this year’s Harvard Health and Human Services Summit. As in previous years, the event brought together leaders and innovators from around the globe to share their experience and thinking. This year, the need for ecosystems of care was a core focus of debate—with many speakers and panelists discussing innovative ways to create and run them.
Several delegates also highlighted the challenges to setting up and maintaining a successful human services ecosystem. There are many hurdles to overcome, including thorny issues like how to maintain data privacy and security when sharing data and resources across ecosystem partners, how to allocate responsibilities appropriately, and how to source sufficient funding to enable the ecosystem to function effectively.
But of all the success factors for a human services ecosystem, the one that I believe is most mission-critical is strong and passionate leadership. Why? Because only outstanding and committed leadership can overcome a range of relatively intangible but deeply-embedded barriers to the success of any outcomes-focused ecosystem of care.
Four types of barrier in particular spring to mind:
“Not-invented-here barriers”: Unwillingness to seek input from others, often because of an inward-looking culture that makes them fearful of engaging externally.
“Hoarding barriers”: Reluctance to help others, because of narrow incentives or a feeling that they’re in competition with them.
“Search barriers”: Unable to find what they seek, because of difficulties such as physical distance or information overload.
“Transfer barriers”: Lack of ability to work with each other to transfer knowledge, perhaps because they have no common framework or the knowledge is hard to write down or verbalise.
It’s vital to take account of these barriers—and work through their implications for each citizen—when defining the ecosystem and the value proposition for the various partners. If this is done successfully, then the outcome will be an effective ecosystem that leverages three key attributes:
Breadth – by incorporating all relevant stakeholders
Depth – by building strong and close relationships between all ecosystem partners
Density – by balancing the “links” to non-intersecting networks and partners
It is also important to be aware that building such an ecosystem is not a one-time effort. It’s an ongoing exercise that requires strong leaders who continually invest time and effort in keeping up relationships, adjusting value propositions, and bringing new partners on board as markets and requirements change. It also requires constant exploration of how new and innovative technologies can support and enhance the ecosystem and the outcomes it delivers.
One of these technologies is artificial intelligence (AI). Used properly, AI opens up opportunities to leverage data far more effectively and transform unstructured information into data that can be shared and consumed across the ecosystem much more easily, while preventing any additional risks from a data protection or data security perspective. And since AI augments the work of humans rather than replacing them, it also helps human services agencies to provide new and better services.
Another powerful enabling technology for human services ecosystems is blockchain, which can enable agencies to provide enhanced services in areas like personal identification and payment. The result is reduced risk of fraud—combined with the ability for human services agencies to deliver better and more secure services to their clients and ecosystem partners.
In a challenging and uncertain world, I believe it’s clear that collaborative multi-partner “ecosystems of care” are the way forward for human services. And the key to creating these ecosystems is the right leadership—fully engaged and committed to overcoming barriers, and maximising the resulting benefits for ecosystem partners and their customers. In short, it’s time for human services agencies to reach out, share and collaborate.
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