Encouraging Innovation in Human Services: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Two colleagues in conversation
By Shawna Anderson, Danielle Cummings

During the COVID-19 pandemic, human services agencies serving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) participants faced stay-at-home orders and other restrictions and changes that severely disrupted services. Although no TANF policy changes in response to the pandemic were mandated at the federal level, states were able to use the program's flexibility to modify their polices. For example, many state agencies suspended TANF work participation requirements; families either were not expected to comply with work requirements or were not sanctioned for not complying. This policy change resulted in reduced staff responsibilities for monitoring compliance and many agencies shifted from providing in-person to virtual or hybrid services. Meanwhile, participants’ needs were changing due to the pandemic’s impacts on their jobs, access to child care, and many other aspects of their lives. This created additional considerations for agencies to address as they adapted the services they offered.

MEF Associates published a brief in 2022 that examined the role of positive organizational culture in five TANF agencies’ pandemic responses. The brief introduced four principles associated with a positive organizational culture:

  • Set a clear and consistent program mission and goals.
  • Encourage innovation.
  • Prioritize staff development and empowerment.
  • Maintain a client-centered focus.

“The pandemic environment allowed us the time and space to try new ways of doing things that utilized technology that we weren’t able to do before.”

Santa Cruz Human Services Department Leadership Staff Member

This blog post delves deeper into how two of the agencies featured in the brief—the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the Santa Cruz Human Services Department (HSD)—implemented one of those principles: encouraging innovation. While the MEF brief focused on how agencies encouraged staff autonomy and innovation through virtual staff-led work groups, this blog post focuses on eight concrete processes and cultural shifts implemented by HRA and HSD to encourage innovation in response to the pandemic and how each of those processes came to life. Informed by interviews conducted with agency leadership staff in 2022, this post also offers strategies for any organization interested in promoting creativity and collaboration in their workplace as they strive to better serve their clients.

1. Develop a process to rapidly but thoughtfully test and improve ideas.

One HRA leadership staff member described the process the agency used early in the pandemic to find solutions to emerging challenges:

  • Assess needs.
  • Design solutions.
  • Implement those solutions.
  • Reflect on the implementation.
  • Redesign based on lessons learned.
  • Repeat the process.

The staff member said this process allowed teams to quickly but systematically try new ideas and nimbly pivot when ideas didn’t work as well as planned. For example, HRA’s vendors quickly discovered that program clients were facing new basic needs during the pandemic, such as access to medical care, housing, and food. Agency staff developed and tested a triaging process for vendors to use to assess clients’ basic needs and to connect them to resources at the beginning of the pandemic. HRA staff found that the success of this program exceeded expectations: Beyond getting clients connected with resources quickly, the program improved client-staff relationships by conveying compassion and competence during a difficult time. After receiving positive client feedback from the initial implementation period, the agency refined and expanded the process beyond vendors, making it an agency-wide practice. Although the interviewee did not cite a specific framework for this approach, it resembles rapid-cycle evaluation as well as the "design thinking" philosophy popularized in the human services sector by organizations like IDEO. Central to these approaches is the goal of designing, testing, learning, and refining ideas around a narrowly defined problem.

2. Create feedback mechanisms to encourage ongoing idea sharing.

Both agencies created feedback mechanisms, some formal and some informal, to encourage staff members to share ideas. For example, HSD leadership invited their staff to contribute to an online whiteboarding tool called “Jamboard.” This tool served as a digital suggestion box, allowing individuals to contribute ideas anonymously at any time while also allowing staff members to see each other’s ideas. Creating this platform signaled that staff members input was wanted and prompted idea generation. The on-demand platform allowed the staff to contribute ideas at any time, and the anonymity of the platform may have fostered honesty and creativity among staff members at all levels of the organizational hierarchy.

3. Create opportunities for people with diverse experiences to collaborate on idea generation.

Hearing from people with varied experiences is always helpful when working to solve problems, but it is particularly helpful when facing a novel crisis. Leadership from both HSD and HRA created opportunities for their teams to learn from and collaborate with external entities to develop new approaches to service delivery. For example, HSD instituted “virtual stand-up meetings" between two previously unconnected offices located at different ends of Santa Cruz County to facilitate idea exchange and problem-solving. Meeting with people facing similar challenges in different contexts allowed staff members to share ideas arising from their work and to generate new ideas that could help solve emerging challenges. Similarly, HRA staff developed relationships with local employers to create new approaches to hiring and employment training, resulting in the creation of virtual job fairs, virtual employer visits, and virtual internships.

4. Develop pathways for peer education.

Some staff members were intimidated by the shift from in-person to virtual services. In response, the HSD leadership team filmed staff members who volunteered to model various virtual services (for example, career assessments) and then shared the videos with other staff members. This approach served the dual purpose of training the staff in virtual service delivery while also easing anxieties about providing services this way. The videos showed that these virtual services were similar to guided conversations, which staff members were already familiar with.

5. Use formal frameworks to structure your processes.

Structuring a process around a concrete framework can help teams work through challenges efficiently and collaboratively. For example, the HSD team used lean principles to examine and adapt existing processes, such as a paperwork reduction committee assessing the agency’s longstanding paperwork requirements. As a result, the committee eliminated, combined, and digitized (through DocuSign) forms -- reducing total forms by over 30 percent and reducing onerous paperwork barriers that may impede equitable access to public services.

6. Actively encourage idea sharing through supportive leadership.

Leadership teams in each agency encouraged staff members to critique and redesign existing processes, dedicating time and space to learning and experimentation. This signaled to staff members that their feedback was wanted and valued. Leadership also encouraged feedback through subtler means, such as regularly asking questions that encouraged problem solving, analysis, and idea sharing. That included questions like, “What bugs you? Let’s fix it!” and “That’s a great question. Why are we doing this?” By consistently weaving open-ended reflection questions into regular interactions, leadership staff aimed to help create a culture in which individuals felt more comfortable sharing their ideas.

7. Build in time for reflection.

Reduced compliance-monitoring responsibilities resulting from the TANF work requirement policy changes described above gave staff members extra time in their days. This provided a unique opportunity for them to pause and reflect about how best to serve their clients. HRA staff noted that this time for reflection allowed leadership and other staff members to analyze the implementation of new approaches and to think creatively about how to improve them. Leadership staff acknowledged that it would be challenging to preserve this time for reflection in a more typical context, but the pandemic made the power of this reflection time clear. They were already considering how they might carve out time for reflection once services returned to more typical levels.

“Having that frame of mind of streamlining, eliminating waste, and considering the client’s time is just so critical. There are so many hoops for clients to jump through, and you have to continuously ask yourself, ‘Why did we have to do this?’ It’s changed the way I look at everything now. And it’s catching on more and more in our team.”

NYC Human Resources Administration Leadership Staff Member

8. Celebrate your successes.

Celebrating accomplishments can serve the dual purpose of positively reinforcing innovative work while also signaling that successful ideas are seen and valued by agency leadership. For example, TANF agencies often engage outside vendors to provide services such as workforce development and training for TANF participants. HRA created “success story” newsletters focused on service delivery achievements to share with vendors and help them feel engaged. These newsletters helped these organizations, who may not otherwise be connected with other vendors, learn about each other’s work, potentially spurring new ideas.

Conclusion

According to one human service agency leadership staff member, COVID-19 “shook the foundation of the way we do business,” and challenged their teams to “think outside of the box and figure out better ways to do things.” The leadership staff members MDRC researchers interviewed leaped into action, developing concrete processes and cultural shifts to encourage innovation among their staff members. As a result, these organizations were able to implement creative service adaptations to better serve clients in the pandemic environment. The organizations intended to continue to support many of those adaptations—as well as a culture that encourages innovation—after the public health emergency ended.

About InPractice

The InPractice blog series highlights lessons from MDRC’s work with programs, featuring posts on recruiting participants and keeping them engaged, supporting provider teams, using data for program improvement, and providing services remotely.

InPractice Topics