Author:Mcgann, Barbra
Position:Conference notes

And these days, it takes a network of villages--an ecosystem--to generate new levels of impact on people's well-being. While tapping into the incredible resources of such an ecosystem is complex, digital technology and passionate people can make it happen. That's the vision of the health and human services agencies in the United States. It's about creating thriving families-healthy, educated, and safe--at the heart of ecosystems because a child thrives within the nucleus of family. An ecosystem in this context is a set of organizations, systems, and services networked to create better outcomes. Health and human services agencies exist to harness the capacity of the ecosystem to create and sustain these environments and to identify and solve the root causes that challenge this vision. It's a lofty goal, and one that inspires, challenges, and energizes an amazing group of public service leaders, as evidenced at the Health and Human Services Summit hosted by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at Harvard University, developed by the Leadership for a Networked World in collaboration with Accenture and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA).

Agencies that can collaborate and show impact on outcomes such as decreasing heart disease and childhood obesity (e.g., San Diego, CA), curtailing the opioid epidemic (e.g., Kentucky), or reducing neighborhood crime through local efforts in Mecklenburg County, NC, earn legitimacy--the right to operate in a democratic society. Just as private companies are beholden to customers and shareholders, public agencies are tied to their constituents. Therefore, the organization, ecosystem, and services of health and human services agencies need to be centralized and focused on the family. That's the motivation that brings agency leaders together at the summit to share what's working and explore how to keep evolving to break down barriers within and between organizations and the public they serve to create effective ecosystems. At last year's summit, 92 percent of the attendees said that building new ecosystems is critical to create change because of all the touch points with individuals in communities and the limited resources they have to engage. (1) This year, more than 70 percent of the agency leaders in attendance said they anticipate a significant or extreme increase in the expectations to deliver better outcomes, and that ecosystems play a critical role.

During the two-day summit, leaders from health and human services agencies in the United States and Canada explored what makes an effective ecosystem--who (people) and what (data and systems) need to be in it, how to use it to achieve better results, examples of work underway, and what organizations are learning. What is really happening in assembled teams to create the future? What does the future of outcomes look like and how do we create it? How do you get more impact from constrained capacity? Because--bottom line--the public wants not just to know but feel the value generated by its government, which depends on how health and human services agencies create collaborative ecosystems to harness, focus, and increase capacity to deliver better outcomes. That means, as Paul Fleissner, Director, Olmsted County Community Services, summarized: "We need to focus on the person, and they don't come in pieces the way we are often organized to serve."

Successful H/HS Agencies Create Ecosystems that Enable Families to Thrive

When it's good it's really, really, good... In one example, the members of a health and human services (H/HS) ecosystem came together to support a family in trouble. Four kids and a mom from a violent relationship, who were homeless, became the nucleus of an effective ecosystem that included the legal system, human services, transportation, and education--entities all working with the family. They polled, communicated, and supported each other to keep track of and support the kids and parent. These kids are now a distinguished academic, an artist, an accountant, and a U.S. Army officer.

... and when it's bad, it's horrid... In a separate and unfortunate situation, U.S. marshals visiting a house with an eviction notice found four kids who had died. Their mother had been on food assistance, rental assistance, and in a program for mental health issues, and the kids had been receiving transportation aid to get to and from school. All of these are public services, and yet no single element of the system had raised an issue or alert or (evidently) communicated with the others when the students didn't show up at school or the mother didn't show up for a mental health appointment. It's a truly sad and unfortunate case of a broken system.

These stories each serve to show the criticality of working across organizational silos and bringing together services, technology, and people that focus on educated, healthy, and safe families. In the second example, the system was broken--likely organizations were...

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