What are human services and how do governments structure them? In this recent report, the Urban Institute and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) answer these simple yet fundamental questions. This complex set of service coordination and delivery can be configured in myriad ways. Specialized or generalist, contracted or direct service delivery, integrated or separate in structure, technology, planning, and budgeting – the landscape is wide for how we move toward building UnSystems across the country.
The report describes in detail the variety of ways states in the U.S structure and govern human services – what is included and who, how alignment occurs (or not), and which model is most effective (there isn’t one). The overall conversation reminds us that nothing is fixed. There are many different approaches to providing services to populations and subpopulations in our communities.
“Human services” has no single agreed-upon set of programs and services but are generally recognized as: disability and independent living services; child, family, and community services; cash and in-kind benefits; aging and senior services; workforce development and financial well-being services. Some jurisdictions include juvenile justice, housing, domestic violence services, behavioral health, substance use programs, or public health. Most states contract with non-profit and community-based organizations to provide direct services, though this also varies widely.
Reporting to a single agency director, cross-sector task force initiatives, unified vision and strategic planning process, integrated technology, and integrated budget processes can contribute to alignment and coordination of service delivery. Conversely, lack of visionary leadership, competition for funding, disinterest or inability of staff to collaborate, and spending a majority of time in crisis management can keep collaboration and alignment at bay. Tensions exist between narrow service departments for meeting specialized needs and broad, integrated departments promoting collaboration.
Critically, the final paragraph of this report prompts readers toward follow-up discussions on why human services are structured the way they are. “The structures of state human services are the products of policy decisions over decades that reflect demographics, economics, structural racism, and politics.”
Which demographics? Economic advantage for who? Structural racism how? Political influence where? If we’re in the business of systems transformation (we are), we must be grounded in the knowledge of how our existing systems came to be and the wide range of ways they can be restructured to serve a future vision.
How might state human service delivery be structured to promote UnSystems across the country?
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