Why should social services be excited about automation? Hint: an end to mundane, repetitive work
The importance of protecting children and ensuring their growth into healthy adults is an altruistic, civilized mission rarely refuted. On the front lines of promoting child safety are government social service agencies. And while these agencies take a vested interest to ensure the safety, permanency and well-being of children, families and communities, they struggle to provide efficient and effective services to the vulnerable populations who need it.
I should know. I worked in child welfare for 25 years as a social worker in the public sector. Engaging with children and families in crisis commonly included deep work in the mental health, substance abuse, economic services, medical, and criminal justice space, as well. Before that I was in the child welfare system … as an orphan child, then a foster youth and finally an adopted teenager.
I recently transitioned my career to the private sector at IBM to connect my extensive knowledge in social programs and in technology to assist agencies in creating new experiences. At IBM I have been exposed to technology that can make a difference: the promise of artificial intelligence, machine learning and completely new interactions between humans and machines that can result in deeper insights, improved efficiencies, and better outcomes for families and children on the receiving end of social services.
I often reflect on how caseworkers in this profession are overloaded with administrative tasks and heavy caseloads creating a very stressful work experience. This contributes to the high turnover rate in the profession. At the center of a caseworker’s day-to-day is a significant amount of manual, repetitive and at times mundane work to remain compliant with government policies. The result: not enough time spent supporting children and families at critical moments.
There has been a lot of criticism recently about automation and artificial intelligence taking jobs, but what if that is exactly what child welfare and social service delivery need? Automated “digital workers” that could help caseworkers with the repetitive and administrative work so that they can focus on helping children stabilize and experience better long-term outcomes. This new software-enabled digital workforce is not intended to replace human workers but to augment the human roles for optimal work-effort outcomes.
If caseworkers could shift the repetitive nature of their work to digital workers, such as capturing and digitizing handwritten notes, data gathering from external systems, and filling out and following up on service referrals, their time would free up to spend with clients conducting more thorough assessments and aligning services to improve the lives of each child and their family more rapidly.
When government agencies implement automation, the results can be seen immediately allowing caseworkers to:
- Be freed up to execute tasks in which they are professionally trained
- Spend more time with children and families, building relationships to improve outcomes
- Assess and prioritize critical cases
- Stay in compliance with government regulations
- Have a more positive and fulfilling work experience
Government agencies should not ignore the impact automation can have on the profession but embrace it. Digital workers and automation offer a compelling capability for social service delivery that is not dependent upon large system overhauls, new interfaces or large-scale transformations. This technology does not remove humans from the aspects of the work that require a caring, compassionate, professional. It merely reduces a caseworker’s manual workload by handling the tasks that are ripe for automation.
By realizing the benefits and impact that automation can have in the lives of vulnerable children and those that serve them, government agencies are better equipped to deliver long term outcomes that can truly make a difference.
Leah Dienger is the social services program leader at IBM Global Business Services.