Access to services has changed over time
Both technology and the economic downturn have been major drivers in the way that access to services has changed over time. The need, and ability, to create system efficiencies has broadened access in some areas and narrowed access in others, such as:
- Self-Service: WA Connection, enables users to assess their eligibility for some WA State and Seattle programs and then allows completion of applications online. As technology has advanced, self-service options have become more popular, especially with younger, more tech savvy, generations. This type of access also provides a benefit to those who have limited mobility or transportation barriers but can access the Internet. Hopefully, as the WA Connection site and processes are evaluated and improved, the application process may also be streamlined and reduce state and local government staffing needs.
- Social Media: Twitter is becoming more integrated in the ways that community members obtain information about services, and how to access them. This is especially true during times of disaster when having the ability to post and provide updates in real-time is critical.
- Single Point of Entry: Limiting access to specific services through a single entry point provides an opportunity to create operational consistency, greater quality control and accurate tracking of the number of people trying to access services. An example of this is the Family Housing Connection (FHC) system, created for homeless families seeking shelter and housing which went live in April 2012. Previously, families contacted as many providers as possible to try and access services, ending up on multiple wait lists and would need to re-contact providers regularly to confirm their status. Not only was this labor intensive for families, there was no true way to identify how many homeless families there were in King County. Through FHC, families call King County 2-1-1, are pre-screened and scheduled an appointment with a Housing Assessment Specialist at FHC, a program of Catholic Community Services. One database is maintained that houses information about the families in need and the participating providers’ requirements and available shelter and housing units. As with any change, there will be bumps in the road but ultimately, FHC will be a much more streamlined and effective process for everyone involved. More detailed information can be found here.
Trying to do more with less is not realistic; so many social service providers had to manage the demand for resources in new ways as funding was reduced. Sometimes that meant further limiting services to specific geographic areas/Zip Codes, reducing the number of services previously provided or cutting the amount of assistance (financial, program/case management time, etc.) that could be provided. For those accessing services it frequently meant reaching out to more organizations to try and find, or to piece together, the resources or services needed. This is not only difficult, but often discouraging and overwhelming for those who are already in some type of life crisis. Some people in need are persistent and understand that before they access needed services they may need to make a lot of outgoing phone calls, leave multiple voicemails, deal with no answers/busy signals, and hear from some that assistance is not currently available. While on this path, some will be able to find help through other means and some just give up.
Although call numbers remain high, 2-1-1’s across the nation are seeing a major increase in the number of people searching websites and online databases to find resources. This trend is necessitating a greater focus on the usability of these websites and tools to ensure that users are able to search in a way that is most familiar to them (Google type searching) and that the most searched-for, or commonly needed, resources are prominently displayed or easily accessible. Many people are not able to afford a computer and high-speed Internet access at home, but have included Internet access on their cell phone plan so they are still able to search for and find resources online. Research has indicated that many homeless people have cell phones, and many 2-1-1’s have created downloadable apps (some available on iTunes) to enable quick and easy access to database resource information. Technology will continue to influence the way people access services, and some organizations are already piloting “text messaging” as a way to provide information and/or referrals. The youngest generation is obviously most in synch with the technological trends and will drive the changes required to ensure access to services is available in a variety of ways.
Collaboration seems to be a current buzzword and, I would say, for good reason. Nonprofits, like all organizations, must change with the times in order to be successful. As the funding pies shrink, instead of just fighting for our slice we need to work together, continue to identify desirable system improvements, recognize and reduce unnecessary duplication, and be proactive instead reactive in order to best meet the needs of those trying to access community services.