Designing social services that work: The importance of deeper problem exploration

Dec 4, 2019
5 MIN. READ

By rushing to fix a poorly understood problem, social service agencies risk wasting valuable resources while issues persist.

Just as you need to diagnose whether a rash is caused by poison ivy, measles, or something else before treatment, it’s essential to understand the underlying source of a problem before turning to an intervention. In social services—like many other arenas—agencies must avoid assumptions about the root causes of the challenges they face. Instead, data-driven problem exploration can provide objective insight and help identify the right solutions. 

Where new programs go wrong

It’s human nature to jump to conclusions based on anecdotal information. We see one incident and extrapolate the situation across the full problem. Often, an agency leader will attend a conference, get excited by a presentation about a new program, and bring it back to their organization. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t do any good because it doesn’t address their agency’s particular issues. 

For example, a state agency might introduce a new evidence-based assessment model. But, once implemented, their outcomes don’t change (or worsen). The underlying issue was not the model itself, but the fact that caseworkers are overloaded and not completing assessments.

ICF experts have discovered similar scenarios in their consulting work. 

“We’ve seen teams come in thinking they know what their problems are, and they’ve already decided on new programs to put in place,” notes Tori Russell, capacity building advisor for the Children’s Bureau’s Child Welfare Capacity Building Center for States. “Yet, after they go through a more thorough problem exploration process, they begin to recognize that their needs—and, therefore, the required solution—may be very different than what they originally thought.”

Our experts recommend three interrelated approaches for agencies to dig deeper into social service challenges:

  • Gathering and analyzing data
  • Conducting a root cause analysis
  • Collecting diverse stakeholder input

1. Gathering and analyzing data to explore the problem

Using data to better understand complex situations and make decisions is essential to effective change efforts. A well thought out data plan can guide the way with selected research questions and related data sources. Questions may explore: What is the scope of the problem? Under what circumstances does it occur? Who is most at risk? Are there variations across locations and why? The answers may be uncovered in administrative data, surveys, focus groups, case reviews, or other data sources.

Once reliable data have been collected, it’s time to uncover the “story” that the data tell through patterns, relationships, and trends. Disaggregating data—or breaking it down—is a valuable way to look at differences in the experiences of different groups and identify where the problem might be most critical and who is most affected by it. 

2. Conducting root cause analysis

Armed with data that provide evidence of the problem and the characteristics of those most affected, agencies can move on to investigate the contributing factors and underlying root causes. Root cause analysis is a structured process for understanding why a problem exists and what actions to take to solve it. 

Simple techniques can help uncover root causes, including creating visual diagrams to map out factors that affect the problem and asking “why?” five times in a row to drill down into a problem. Data and evidence should be used to support or counter assumptions about the root causes and verify staff and stakeholder insights. 

3. Collect input from the people closest to the problem

Gathering perspectives from diverse stakeholder groups—including frontline staff, service recipients, and community partners—is essential to truly understand a problem and its root causes. Those closest to the issue have important views that add meaning to data and provide insight into both a problem’s underlying causes and its potential solutions.

What concerns are unique to social service agencies for problem exploration?

Problem exploration and other structured change management and implementation practices are borrowed from private industry. The work is different for social service agencies in a few critical ways:

  • Child welfare and other social service agencies are supporting children and families and not producing “widgets.” Changes are harder to test and measure, and the consequences of getting it wrong directly impact people’s lives in serious ways.
  • There are strong political influences and external forces—state government, legislative, judicial, and so on—that may influence decisions regardless of problem exploration findings.
  • Social service agencies often need to rely more on qualitative data to fill gaps in existing quantitative data sets.
  • Many social services professionals do not have a background or expertise that supports data analysis, which is a key piece of problem exploration.

Despite these challenges, agencies can start catching up with best practices from private industry. The most important step is to connect the work of problem exploration to the heart of the issue. Most people in social services want to improve outcomes for children and families but they don’t always make a connection between the data and the individuals. By fostering an appreciation for data and how it can help people, better solutions will rise to the surface.

Applying problem exploration in real-world settings

In today’s fast-paced world, pressures abound to move quickly. Social service agencies continually face emerging issues, new legislation, grants, and other opportunities—many of which require new approaches to complex problems. 

To achieve change, agencies need a deliberate approach to gain a clearer understanding of what’s happening and why, so that—ultimately—they can find the right fix. Finding the right partner can get your agency there faster. Rushing to a solution without deeper exploration will not. 

Go to ICF
By Jill Sanclimenti
File Under