Can Innovation Improve Lives of Vulnerable Children and Families?


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, which 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 But for those that do, their service management systems are often outdated and closed off from other partners working with the same clients. There’s often 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, a technology-based solution that enables better communication among providers, reduces redundant paperwork and record keeping, and frees up more time for human-to-human connection to support those in need. Oliver, which also provides transparency for government and the nonprofits that support social services, includes comprehensive data collection, workflow management, and data analytics and reporting. In the end, it provides a more complete picture about how—and how well—we are serving some of our state’s most vulnerable people. It brings insight into what’s working, what isn’t, and how social services can more effectively coordinate and allocate resources to better serve the needs of youth and families.

Indeed, 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 home 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.

Another example: Many struggling children, youth, young adults and families go from one social service provider to the next, with little connection between those services and, too often, with little guidance. One person might have dinner at the local soup kitchen a few nights a week and receive training at a job skills center once a week. Or, over the course of a week, a youth could easily interact with as many as five 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 these service providers could communicate with one another easily, they could better understand the complete picture of their customers’ challenges and work together to solve them.

Oliver is an important innovation because it helps people, but also because it shows how a public university like the University of Washington 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.

Editors note: This essay is one in an occasional series appearing in the Xconomist Forum, written by contributors selected by CoMotion, the University of Washington’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

Benjamin de Haan is executive director of Partners for Our Children and an affiliate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work. Follow @

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