Using Data to Move Social Services into the 21st Century

By de Haan, Benjamin | Policy & Practice, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Using Data to Move Social Services into the 21st Century


de Haan, Benjamin, Policy & Practice


Data transparency is more and more important for government agencies.

Time and time again, public agencies are being criticized for keeping secrets, for not revealing the full truth, or for only sharing information that puts them in a good light. All of this has driven an increasing interest in government transparency, especially over the last decade.

Many people believe that an open government promotes accountability and allows citizens to better understand how state systems are working. For particularly sensitive government functions--such as the public child welfare system--there is even more interest in understanding whether or not the system is actually doing what it is supposed to do: keeping vulnerable children and families safe and healthy.

One solution: openly sharing data through an online portal.

An online data portal helps to promote transparency and self-service access to answering the numerous questions that may arise about the state of the system--increasing both transparency and efficiency in getting system information to the public to inform decisions.

At Partners for Our Children (POC), we know that child welfare data help us understand how the system is currently working, but it can also be valuable by informing future practice and policy decisions. This is at the core of what we've been doing since we started in 2007. We want to get the right research and data into the hands of individuals and organizations that are making important decisions about children and families in Washington State.

One way we've done this is by working with the Washington State's child welfare agency to make their data available online. Through a data-sharing agreement with Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Children's Administration (CA), Partners for Our Children launched the Washington State Child Well-Being Data Portal (http://partnersforourchildren.org/data-portal) to provide access to data about the vulnerable children and families who interact with the child welfare system in Washington State. The Data Portal, which launched in 2013, aims to enhance transparency, build understanding, and provide decision support for child welfare practitioners and policymakers.

Only a handful of other states have made their child welfare data accessible online, notably Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina. We also know there are other states looking into options or starting development of their own Data Portal.

Openly sharing data is a bold move for a state because easy public access to agency data also makes the agency subject to ongoing public scrutiny. But by doing so, Washington State has--to an extent--helped deflect criticisms that they weren't sharing enough information on how children in the system are faring.

HOW THE DATA PORTAL IS MAKING AN IMPACT

The Data Portal in Washington State has been instrumental in decision-making for professionals across the state--policymakers to family court judges to advocates--have found the tool to be valuable for understanding how the system is working and what areas may need improvement.

Many organizations are also using the Data Portal to inform their strategies, help them with grant applications, and more. One example is Childhaven, an organization that offers healing care to abused, neglected, and chemically affected babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. The organization also helps parents learn how to care for and nurture their children and to manage their behavior positively and consistently. After learning about the Data Portal, Childhaven now uses it to educate their Board and other community members who are a part of their strategic planning committee. In order to help make sound decisions about where the organization could change, they are interested in data that provide a good landscape of Washington's children welfare system, which is easily accessible through the Data Portal. …

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