FACEBOOK and “The Department of Mary Jones” (v2.0)

FACEBOOK and “The Department of Mary Jones” (v2.0)

During Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review, some of the staff began to fantasize about reinventing social services to create “the Department of Mary Jones.” FACEBOOK can make that fantasy a reality. This could bring unity to the most dispiriting, inefficient stovepipes* in American government today.

The idea behind “The Department of Mary Jones” was that the organizing principle of social services should be the client, not the providers of health, welfare, housing, education, etc. We were ‘reinventing government’ back then, and what would make more sense?

Our “Department of Mary Jones” (for I was a Deputy Director of the NPR) would have provided immediate access to all of the information about Ms. Jones, and encouraged/facilitated/mandated coordination among her contacts with food stamps, Section 8 Housing, the police, the juvenile justice system, her welfare case worker, the guidance counselors at her children’s schools, and so forth. Such a system would enable the social worker to find out if there was a problem with food stamps or housing, and the school guidance counselors to notify the social workers of suspected abuse within minutes of seeing a bruised child.

Last year my wife and I became CASAs – Court Appointed Special Advocates – for a dysfunctional family with six kids. They absconded from Maryland and are now four hundred miles away, in a different state. Recently my wife took a call from the principal of the “special school” where the eldest boy is now enrolled. The principal was trying to get in touch with the family’s Children and Family Services caseworker. The principal and the caseworker are less than fifty miles apart and in the same county, far to the west; my wife was in Annapolis, MD. What’s wrong with this picture?

This inability to communicate and collaborate across agencies (and within them!) is neither new nor novel. Kids can get killed because information and actions taken aren’t shared. For just one example, see “Review Finds Agencies, Nonprofits Failed to Coordinate in Jacks Case” (Washington Post, April 2, 2009, and the underlying DC Inspector General’s report at:

FACEBOOK could be the solution to this problem, in so many ways. First, if everyone involved became a “fan” of Mary Jones, then whatever they posted would be instantly and automatically available to everyone else. A quick review of her page at any hour would bring each worker fully up-to-date. The caseworkers’ workloads would be more easily (and quickly) accessed, from their FACEBOOK homepages. Supervisors at each agency, also enrolled as fans, could check on their workers’ efforts just as quickly and easily. All staff could work from anywhere that has Internet access. Such a system should be both more effective and more efficient.

There are now over 200 million users of FACEBOOK worldwide, so there’s unlikely to be a learning curve for many workers. If you’re a user of FACEBOOK, you can readily imagine how such a system would work!

What’s not to like? Well, there’s the privacy issue. In practice, it would be trivial to put the FACEBOOK software onto secure servers, and the information could be made as secure as anything that the Central Intelligence Agency is involved with. Caseworkers already work with a great deal of confidential information.

Also, recent attempts to create an integrated case management system in Fairfax County, Virginia, have foundered on both the data sharing (privacy) issues and because “the rules” do not permit commingling administrative grants across TANF, Food Stamps, etc., to pay for an integrated system.

It would be nice to think that all we’d need is a few “Yes Lawyers” rather than all the “No Lawyers.” In fact, both the data sharing issues and the commingling of grant monies would require changes in legislation as well as policy and regulation. But the vision of a FACEBOOK-driven integrated services delivery system should not be hard to sell in an Administration as “wired” as this one!

Of course, it might be an incentive to know that Canada (and other countries are well on the road to developing such systems, with or without America’s “high tech” Web 2.0 services, such as FACEBOOK. IBM’s Center for the Business of Government published a research report in 2008 entitled Integrating Service Delivery Across Levels of Government: Case Studies of Canada and Other Countries (available in full at www.businessofgovernment.org/publications/grant_reports/details/index.asp?GID=316).

(If we succeed in developing such a system, it will soon become apparent that the next steps must be a transfer pricing model and the channels needed to move resources quickly to where they are needed. But that’s another story.)

If we really care about children and families at risk, we need to solve the problem of coordinating multitudinous agencies and workers. FACEBOOK could make it happen, in a New York Minute.

Robert A. Knisely
*As we now know, only on the East and West Coasts do we refer to “stovepipe” agencies. In the Midwest, they’re known as “silos.” We can’t even agree on the same terminology for the vertical focus of most government agencies. We’re caught in the same trap!

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