In late 2020 we spoke to more than 7,000 people who had received a social service within the past two years and 600 executives leading social services, employment, public pension and child welfare agencies in the 10 countries surveyed.
Never have human services had a more vital role to play in people’s lives. The pandemic—and the measures to contain it—have intensified the strains on vulnerable groups in the US, especially the unemployed.
As of April 30, 2021, the United States cumulatively had 32 million cases and 572,190 deaths from COVID-19.1 In January 2021, the country’s unemployment rate was 6.3%—up from 3.5% in February 2020. A March 2021 survey by the US Census Bureau found that more than 81 million American adults were struggling to pay for everyday expenses.2 The same survey found that over 24 million adults said their households sometimes or often lack enough food to eat.3 Such economic hardship helps to explain the 17% increase in the number of Americans on food stamps from February to August 2020.4
Human services agencies have been on the front line of the crisis, deploying critical services and handling an explosion in workload. While their response has been extraordinary, the pandemic has also exposed the vulnerabilities in their organizational structures, delivery models and ways of working.
Agencies under strain
Human services providers are feeling the strain. Most executives said the need to do things like create new digital offerings, handle soaring demand for digital services and respond quickly to policy changes pose big challenges for their agencies.
The Key Priorities
As agencies rethink how—and what—they offer, three priorities stand out:
Priority 1: Becoming more responsive
Today, agencies face higher demands for their services, new technical hurdles (such as social distancing rules) and rising expectations for service quality. These developments make it harder to deliver services quickly and effectively. Yet doing so will be vital in dealing with crises to come.
Looking across the efforts by leading human services providers worldwide to be more responsive, a clear theme emerges. Those in the vanguard have the biggest impact on their citizens’ lives by delivering services in a frictionless way and meeting their needs with personalized experiences wherever and whenever they require.
And while some more digitally advanced countries—notably Singapore—have made great progress, most social services agencies across the world are not yet making the most of the powerful tools.
Priority 2: Becoming more accessible
Our research clearly indicates that improving accessibility and transparency helps build trust and belief in the leadership and support offered by government. But an equally important message is that making services more relevant will do little good unless citizens are aware of the choices available to them.
In the United States, 82% of respondents said they lack sufficient guidance on what services they’re eligible for, while 36% said that reduced waiting times would be the best way to increase their trust in government.
Improved communication with citizens is a crucial way to make services more accessible and help reduce waiting times. Smart technologies, such as AI, chatbots and broader, virtual outreach programs, can play an important role in achieving this.
Priority 3: Embracing human ingenuity and new technologies
As we’ve highlighted, delivering improvements in responsiveness and accessibility is key for agencies to impact lives and livelihoods.
There’s no doubt that combining an agile mindset with the right technologies can enable teams to deliver better outcomes and experiences for Americans.
Toward a brighter future for Americans—and agencies
Alongside its other impacts, COVID-19 has dramatically underlined the crucial role of human services agencies in supporting the most vulnerable individuals and families across the United States. The pandemic has also demonstrated the need for more effective human-centric delivery of these services. And while technology is clearly part of the solution, it’s just as important to embrace new organizational mindsets and ways of working. Agencies that commit today to meeting both imperatives will open the way to a brighter future for the people they serve—and for their own organizations.
1 COVID Data Tracker
2 Household pulse survey
3 Calculated by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities from Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey
4 Compilation of state-reported number of SNAP participants. CBPP.