Policy Research

Can Technology Fix the Social Services?

Tin Can Smartphone Nonprofit Communications

Five Points to Consider and Five Steps Forward


To meet the immense needs of the community, governments and social service agencies have often looked to technology to assist them in delivering an array of services more efficiently. However, significant strides are necessary to fall in line with other industries in performance management and the use of technology. In comparison, the fields of healthcare and education have been far more innovative in their use of technology to improve service delivery. Though not without missteps, both fields have instituted a data culture, through the adoption of Electronic Medical Records and expansive district- wide Student Information Systems.

As the growing number of families in need are balanced against intense budgetary pressure, technology plays an important role in addressing community problems.  Along with the opportunity to become increasingly efficient and effective, the introduction of new data management systems, and equipment such as tablets and smart devices, also demand new expertise and capacity.  Upgrades to software and the purchase of new devices come with large capital investments, and their use gives rise to growing public concern over cyber security.   Such dynamic changes require a considered approach to implementing new technology throughout the industry. While the human services community must be diligent in capturing the benefits of new technology, decision-makers must be thoughtful about the unique nature of the work and the impact of integration of new systems.

Five Points to Consider

While embracing advances in technology is critical to effective social service delivery, caution must be taken to improve the likelihood of success in these efforts. Substantive planning and careful implementation are vital.

1. Small Organizations are at risk for being left behind

Small neighborhood houses and organizations may be at a significant disadvantage to utilize technology to the fullest in their social service work, which may hamper their ability to report on outcome data and, therefore, compete with large organizations for funding.

2. Workforce Challenges

The human service workforce struggles to keep up with constant demands to adjust to changes in technology.  Largely, colleges and universities have not adapted to fully prepare students for the realities of practicing in a tech advanced world.

3. Complexities of Community Based Work

Community based service delivery poses additional challenges when incorporating technology into daily work. A lack of regular access to Wi-Fi jeopardizes the ability to collect and store data while working in the field. Safety presents further concerns as more and more social service workers are providing services using tablets, laptops, and smartphones.

4. HIPPA and confidentiality

Digital records offer the potential to be a safer alternative to paper records, which are inherently easier to misplace, more difficult to trace, and generally harder to protect. In order for these potential benefits to be realized, however, precautions must be taken to avoid theft and meet regulatory compliance.

5. Relationships with Clients May Suffer

An inevitable consequence of more automated systems, online applications and service gateways is less direct contact with social service consumers. Meaningful interpersonal interactions require engaged participation. The introduction of electronics into that interaction can potentially hinder a provider’s ability to stay engaged with their client.

Steps Forward

Multiple opportunities exist to improve and enhance the ways that groups in Cuyahoga County deliver social services, and technology is critical to these efforts.

1. Collaboration is Key

Increased communication and collaboration regarding technology in the social services is necessary to generate meaningful system change.

2. Better Prepare the Workforce

We must work to improve the ability for social service professionals to more easily adapt to rapid changes in technology impacting the field. Colleges and universities would be wise to respond with course material specific to delivering services in a technologically advanced world.

3. Research on the Digital Divide

Additional research into the technical capabilities of both the social service workforce and consumers could be of benefit. The digital divide continues to exist, but to what extent requires further investigation.

4. Improve Access

Expanding the availability of Wi-Fi would be one step toward improving access for low income populations, and would also improve the ability of community based providers to use technology in the field.

5. Funders Can Provide Support

Acknowledgement by funders of the extensive costs and human resources capacity required to introduce and effectively use technology could lead to greater, more innovative use by all providers. Additionally, funders may be in a unique position to move the county forward in the use of tracking common metrics at a community level using technology.


Though initial investments of time and money are necessary, social workers and other personnel will often report that, once fully implemented, using technology in the field saves valuable time and increases efficiency. The use of online assessment tools, Internet-based mental health services, and sharing resources and creating communities via social media are just a few examples. Supervisors and managers can utilize performance management software functions to monitor caseloads and hold staff accountable for their work, while identifying gaps in service delivery. Many of these tools are underutilized. While always staying mindful of ethical considerations, we do a disservice to the vulnerable populations we serve when we discount the impact of technology in social services.


Read the full report here.

Rose Frech, Policy and Planning Associate, The Center for Community Solutions
Brad Davy, Graduate Assistant, College of Urban Affairs