The Innovation Imperative

February 12, 2016

Can innovation improve the quality of life for vulnerable children and families?

By Benjamin de Haan, PhD
Executive director, Partners for Our Children
Affiliate professor, UW School of Social Work

Technological innovation is rare in the human services field, because most  service providers operate with limited resources and they are forced to choose between serving more families or investing in technology. In addition, most funding in human services comes from government sources, who rely on paper processes for accountability.

More specifically, social service providers lack the resources and technology to efficiently collect, analyze and report data. We know that some don’t even collect data; but for those that do, their service management systems are often outdated, closed off from other partners working with the same clients, and there’s no feedback loop that allows them to assess how and if their services are working.

The lack of data and technology tools should not get in the way of improving services for the most vulnerable children and families in our communities. If we can empower social service providers with innovative technology, tools and powerful data, services will be enhanced, which ultimately means that outcomes for children and families will be improved.

That’s why we have developed Oliver, an innovative new technology solution that will help child welfare and youth / young adult homeless social service providers streamline very time-consuming business processes within their organizations – comprehensive data collection, workflow management and data analytics and reporting.

Spending less time within these areas allows social service providers to spend more time with the clients they serve. Ultimately, this allows the people doing the work to deliver more personalized client care through efficient and effective services. We estimate that by automating many of these processes we can save as much as 40 percent of direct service time. So, if a service provider has a staff of 10, this would result in a savings of four staff positions that could be redeployed to provide additional direct services.

In addition to operational efficiency, this cutting-edge solution will improve lives.

Here’s one example — When a case plan is created by a social worker, broken families are assigned different services to help bring them back together. But after a family is successfully reunified, it is impossible to know which of the services they received were the most effective. If there was a solution that tracked services for all families interacting with the child welfare system, we could analyze the data and hone in on which services have the best outcomes and are most cost effective. In turn, the limited resources available could then be directed to the most effective services, which would ultimately improve outcomes for even more families.

Many young adults also bounce from one homeless service to the next. One might have dinner at the local soup kitchen a few nights a week and receive job skills training once a week. Over the course of a week, youth can easily interact with about 2-5 youth homeless organizations. Unfortunately, most of these organizations don’t have shared data systems, so we can’t fully understand all of the services that youth or young adults receive. If the organizations had a shared data system, they could better understand their clients’ behaviors and work together to optimize service plans that get youth off the streets quicker.

Oliver is an important innovation because it helps people, but also because it shows how a public university like the UW can put next-generation ideas into action and, in the process, become an active participant in our democracy. In my view, you can’t transform public policy by just doing research and throwing it over the wall; you really have to take your knowledge and get tough things done out in the world.

That means you can’t rely solely on government to get the job done. It means that you have to have a high tolerance for frustration, especially when there are collisions on the way to progress. It means that you have to build solid, substantial and trusted relationships off-campus with diverse people in the community. And it means that you need generous and sensitive donors. Luckily, Oliver has these, thanks to the Raikes Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Connie and Steve Ballmer and others.

But, in the end, if you’re not changing the way our society and our world works, I don’t think you can call yourself an innovator. My hope is that, in some small way, Oliver improves how social services work and, in the process, helps vulnerable children and families live better lives.

The University of Washington believes that nurturing boundless innovation and creativity empowers students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners to create a world of good. Through the Innovation Imperative, the UW is creating inclusive solutions to society’s grand challenges. This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

This article also appeared Feb. 12, 2016, on Xconomy.