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Emergent leadership—turning human services ideas into outcomes

Discover practical insights and inspiration from the 2015 human services summit at Harvard University.


It is a time of great potential in human services—from new business models to evidence-based service design. Yet it is also a time of tough challenges as leaders must tear through deeply ingrained processes and systems that impede change. This reality can be a struggle for even the most adaptive leaders. Sometimes there are more questions than answers:

  • How can human services leaders transform emergent ideas into real outcomes?

  • What are the strategies that every human services agency needs to adapt to change?

  • How do human services organizations begin to forge a successful path to the future?

The sixth annual Human Services Summit focused on pressing questions like these. Originally published by Leadership for a Networked World, this report summarizes key human services themes and learning that leaders can apply in their own communities.


The 2015 Human Services Summit: Emergent Leadership—Turning Ideas into Outcomes—the sixth annual Summit—was held from October 23-25, 2015, at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. This event provides an interactive forum for senior human services leaders to share ideas, troubleshoot challenges and plan to lead in a time characterized by both tough challenges and exciting opportunities.

The Human Services Summit is convened by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, Leadership for a Networked World and Accenture, in collaboration with the American Public Human Services Association.


The report dives deeper into some fascinating human services case studies that came to life at the Summit, using the Human Services Value Curve as a framework for improved outcomes, value and legitimacy. These agencies’ progress and challenges shed light on ways forward for organizations facing similar issues:

  • In 2011, Four Oaks—a non-profit child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral health agency in Iowa—launched TotalChild, a program that has helped to integrate the organization’s services, enabled the agency to engage an array of community stakeholders and funders, and above all helped Four Oaks realize its mission.

  • In 2015, the State of Michigan merged the Departments of Community Health and Human Services as part of an effort to integrate the state’s service delivery system, free social workers from administrative burdens to focus on working with clients, and ensure that the state’s human services focus on peoples’ holistic needs.

  • In 2012, the State of Missouri introduced its Health Homes Initiative, a program that created a place where high-need Medicaid recipients could receive coordinated care from an integrated team of medical, behavioral, and related social services specialists, which resulted in $59 million in savings, reduced blood pressure and cholesterol in beneficiaries, and decreased hospital admissions and emergency room visits.


To overcome daunting barriers and make the most of potential, human services leaders will need to excel in areas such as:

  • Strategy. Set a strategy that drives innovation forward while safeguarding current capacity.

  • Alignment. Align new measures and outcome goals across programs, organizations and sectors.

  • Alliances. Craft non-traditional alliances for sharing of data, resources and accountability.

  • Progress. Pace the organizational change and adaptation necessary for sustainable progress.

It is not just individual agencies that are attempting to ascend the Human Services Value Curve; it is also an entire human services community striving to reach new frontiers of care, integration, efficiency and impact. The world is changing. So it is incumbent on you and your peers to change with it. This is a challenge—indeed, it is an opportunity—worth embracing.

"The world is changing. So it is incumbent on you and your peers to change with it. This is a challenge—indeed, it is an opportunity—worth embracing."


Antonio Oftelie

Antonio Oftelie
Executive Director
Leadership for a Networked World and Public Sector Innovation Fellow, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard

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