Magazine article Policy & Practice

Thinking MOBILE FIRST: Health and Human Services in the Digital Age

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Thinking MOBILE FIRST: Health and Human Services in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

It's been seven years since Apple told us "there's an app for that," and the famous phrase could not be truer today. The explosion of mobile devices, social media, and digital platforms has fundamentally changed the way that consumers interact with businesses and each other. These same consumers rightly expect to be able to engage with their government agencies how, where, and when they choose.


What does this mean for health and human services agencies? For those ot us still trying to catch up with the definitions of Generation X, Generation Y (also known as Millennials or Echo Boomers), and Generation Z (also known as Centennials, iGeneration, Post-Millennials, Plurals, or Homeland Generation), there are a lot of implications. Familiarity and comfort with the use of technology, including mobile and social media, increases significantly from Generations X to Y to Z.

These generations also show different tendencies in terms of how they view work-life balance, politics, and other social markers. The reliance on technology alone is quite significant. One could simply view Generation X as the generation that first began adapting to technology, Generation Y as the generation that began relying on technology, and Generation Z as the generation that grew up with and expects technology. This shift from adoption to reliance to expectation has implications for our future workforce as well as for the clients we serve.


The use of digital technology is essential to meeting the changing expectations and culture of our society as well as driving the behaviors and responsibilities we expect. It's also becoming an imperative in terms of driving efficiencies and offering better, alternative channels of interactions. A Brookings report from 2012 indicated that government (federal, state, and local) employment had decreased, by more than 580,000 jobs since the close of the prior recession, to the lowest level in more than 30 years. (1) Even more striking, from the same Brookings report, "To examine the direct consequences of lower government employment, consider the case in which employment had hewed to its historical level. Between 2001 and 2007, the average ratio of government employment to population was 9.7 percent. Had that share remained steady, government employment would have been more than 23.6 million in June 2012 as compared to its actual level of 21.9 million. That is, employment would be 1.7 million jobs higher today if the share had remained constant."

We know that public demand for services did not decline and has, in many cases, increased. We are often truly asked to do more with less. That is a reasonable, albeit challenging, public expectation. Getting more positions (i.e., full-time employees, or FTEs) is a rarity; demands must be met by increased technology use, redeployment of staff (which can also be supported via technology), and new partnerships. If you haven't already, do an exercise to determine the amount of time your staff spends on the phone across the entire workforce. Think about how many FTEs are handling mail (inbound and outbound) and the costs associated with mailings. Think about all of the verifications and legal notices across programs and the questions and work they generate. Think about the time lag between field work and inputting information into a central system.

One core question often asked by outsiders is whether the population served in health and human services is ready for the digital age. The answer is that it's no different than any other population. A majority will be able to utilize it, many will embrace it, and you will need contingencies for others.

According to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of adults making less than $30,000 per year own a smartphone. (2) That number has grown significantly, just in the last couple of years, as smartphone penetration continues to outpace desktop and laptop use. …

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