Into the Great Unknown: Multiple Forces Are Pushing HHS Programs toward an Integrated and Data-Driven Future, the Ultimate Form Which Remains to Be Seen

Policy & Practice, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Into the Great Unknown: Multiple Forces Are Pushing HHS Programs toward an Integrated and Data-Driven Future, the Ultimate Form Which Remains to Be Seen


THE WAY OUR NATION DESIGNS AND RUNS HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES (HHS) PROGRAMS is in the midst of unprecedented change. Spiraling demands, evolving policies and new technologies are pushing the HHS field into uncharted waters.

For agencies in this space, the future looks like this: There will be growing pressure to interconnect separate benefits programs into something that works better and more cohesively for citizens. There will be a push to understand how factors such as where citizens live impacts their health and well-being. And there will be an expectation that agencies analyze data to measure the effectiveness of the programs they run.

Behind the scenes this will drive big changes in the technology systems that support HHS programs. Individual systems will need to integrate more tightly than ever before: they'll need to share and consume data in innovative ways; and they'll need to offer new levels of mobility and other user-friendly features. Sophisticated data analytics and visualization tools will take on more prominence, too, as agencies seek to turn mountains of information into actionable insights.

Even the way HHS systems are deployed is undergoing a seismic shift. In an effort to reduce the cost and risk that are inherent in the modernization of large computer systems, the federal government is incenting an approach known as modular development. The approach envisions breaking big complex systems into smaller logical components. In theory, this makes modernization easier since systems can be deployed one piece at a time. But it also demands that agencies develop new skills around how to plan for these upgrades and fit the pieces together.

As if that weren't enough, the looming presidential election injects still more uncertainty into the mix. Experts say growing integration of HHS programs and greater use of data-driven decision-making are here to stay, regardless of the election's outcome. But a new administration certainly will bring its own nuances and priorities.

"I think there are a number of factors that have come together that are triggering changes across the entire sector--both in health programs and in human services," says Tracy Wareing Evans, executive director of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). (1)

"Funding available through the Affordable Care Act is helping to modernize technology on the health side and maximize the opportunity to bring integration and interoperability to human services systems," she adds. "Beyond the technology, there's also a compelling need for more evidence-based work, both from a fiscal standpoint and to simply do what's right for families that are served by these systems. We need to know what works and what doesn't. …

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