October 26, 2009 By Matt Williams
The Alameda County, Calif., Social Services Agency has struggled for years to link together disparate systems -- a common problem for departments of its size that manage large numbers of cases for a metropolitan population.
In July, the county agency launched a $1.5 million business intelligence and analytics package from IBM that integrates six systems in order to give caseworkers a nearly real-time look at how and when clients are using various social services.
It's unprecedented in scope and will save taxpayers millions of dollars, according to Don Edwards, the agency's assistant director, who has been the new system's evangelist.
The Social Services Integrated Reporting System touches an estimated 250,000 citizens each month from the San Francisco East Bay, Edwards said, which includes 22,000 elderly and disabled, and more than 3,000 children living in foster care. Because of those large numbers, caseworkers have 500 to 600 cases on their desks at one time. In the past, that meant some people enrolled in the system inevitably would receive benefits for which they weren't eligible, or were able to purposely defraud the system.
"We can now see the entire progress of our client. We can see how they move through the system, how they've used the system services that support them, the people who've worked with them, their caseworkers, and other advocates on their behalf. It gives us a better opportunity to see how things progress from a client's perspective," Edwards said.
The system integrates data from the county's welfare system, child welfare, services for the elderly and disabled, probation, and the state's Welfare to Work program. During the next two years, the county will add 20 more data sources, including child care and MediCal -- the state's health-care service. The system also taps into the county's interactive voice response system that automates phone calls and sends e-mail to clients.
The system combines IBM properties: Cognos business intelligence software and dashboard, IBM Data Warehouse, the DB2 database management system and Entity Analytics. IBM built the system in January and Alameda launched it in July. "What we did was unheard of. I've have never seen anyone -- and I've visited lots of my colleagues' organizations -- do so much, so fast," Edwards said.
The analytics capability should save county taxpayers millions of dollars, Edwards said. An overseer of the system can instruct it to flag problems and discontinue a person's benefits until the issue is resolved. It also can detect behavior that might be fraudulent.
For example, after launching the system in July, the county discovered only 10 percent of people who were enrolled in the CalWorks welfare program were doing the work activities mandated for eligibility, according to a press release Monday, Oct. 26, from IBM. County officials had thought the figure was 50 percent.
The system pulls data from national employment databases, postal information and Social Security numbers to confirm and reaffirm eligibility.
"We're going to get 10 times our money's worth out of this system in less than a year, or a year and a half. It's that powerful," Edwards said about the cost avoidance to taxpayers.
The county's system builds upon innovation in social service agencies across the country. Edwards said when he visited New York City in 2003 for a tour of that state's Welfare-to-Work program, he learned about the JobStat program, an offshoot of CrimeStat, an analytics tool that the city used to reduce crime.
"Not the tool, but what they were doing with the tool, intrigued me. What I got from there was a desire to reach all the way down to the client, and all the way back up," Edwards said. He wanted intelligence across the agency, divisions, supervisors, workers and clients. "Though [at the time New York City] didn't have quite that, what they did have was participation of the worker, and tools that allowed the worker to see things. I wanted something like that, but I wanted something better."
Edwards said his organization didn't have the in-house expertise or the will to sacrifice "blood, sweat and tears" in order build its own data warehouse. County officials decided that it would be more cost-effective to have a vendor build the system.
The county already is beginning to see a return on investment.
"Social service has to change, and I think we're one of those organizations who are on the forefront of making that happen," he said.