Magazine article Policy & Practice

Bouncing off the Safety Net: What Tomorrow's Customer Wants

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Bouncing off the Safety Net: What Tomorrow's Customer Wants

Article excerpt

For more than half a century, we've delivered social services using the same business model--a safety net for the poor and vulnerable.

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The assumptions about the people who fell into this net were clear:

* They were clients, not customers. They waited in line. They took a number. And they took what we had to offer them.

* They were the least likely to succeed. We didn't expect them to hold a steady job. We expected them to be back in line.

The model was compassionate, but it failed to expect results from either the client or the government worker. It is no surprise that the public has come to view both in the same light: "good enough for government work" is no accidental term.

That's the backdrop for a hypothesis I want to pose to those of us in social services: our world is getting flatter, and that has produced a new kind of customer who will challenge the safety net business model we're accustomed to.

* Two "flatteners" have transformed our customers. First, welfare reform changed the game. Since 1997, 67 percent of American adults on welfare have left the system. Many entered the workforce and stayed there. In Georgia, 97 percent of adult recipients have left the welfare rolls. Leaver studies show most of them with jobs one year later. Among our existing TANF recipients, 68 percent are involved in work activities. This may explain why in Georgia we have not seen hordes of people returning to welfare during this recession. They are either still working at the big box retailers and fast food giants (where the newly unemployed or worried middle class have started to shop) or they turned to unemployment--the true safety net for the employed. Some show up in the food stamp line, but they see themselves now as working people, not welfare recipients. They expect more from themselves--and from us: They are used to making a contribution. They take care of their families. And they want results. They don't want to get caught by the safety net; they want to bounce back off of it.

* Second, cheap and readily available technology has connected our customers to a larger world. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media have erased the lines that once separated one group from another. They no longer live strictly within the boundaries of poor, isolated neighborhoods. Even the neediest people now have unprecedented access to online and virtual business transactions. These are two-way transactions that put the customer in the driver's seat.

* Any new business model for social services must therefore incorporate two-way transactions where customers manage their own service delivery. …

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