Five Takeaways on Using Human Centered Design to Improve Service DeliverySoutheast Cohort on Young Parents and Families

Centering Young Parents

While having a child can undoubtedly be a positively life-changing experience, it can also bring a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress in making sure that child is cared for. This stress is amplified for young parents in the foster care system as they run the risk of having their children separated from them if no placement options exist for whole families. They must navigate applying to multiple child care options and making postnatal doctors appointments, all while attending school or keeping up with their employment. As young parents begin to age out of foster care, priorities such as their child’s health, schooling, housing and medical coverage  can become compounding stress factors for parents. The human service systems such as foster care and public assistance were not designed with considerations around young parents' experiences and often lack an intergenerational approach to support. State and county departments that are not equipped to address the needs of all families run the risk of perpetuating, if not exacerbating, barriers to stable employment and the overall well being of the child.

Five Takeaways on Human Centered Design

Through working with the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in GA and the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) in KY in the Southeast Cohort on Young Parents and Families, Third Sector has identified five major takeaways for how to establish a human-centered approach to service delivery by centering a population’s long-term economic mobility outcomes. To see how these takeaways have enhanced agency collaboration and, in turn, outcomes for young parents in GA and KY, see the site strategies section below these 5 takeaways.

1. Prioritize Outcomes in a Population: Choose a population that is typically underserved. Engage this population to understand what success looks like for them and align on the priority measures that would indicate that success. In GA and KY, they chose to prioritize young parents.

  • Tip: Third Sector often starts by identifying outcome buckets such as “Employment” or “Post-Secondary Education” and narrowing down to outcome measures such as “Employment retention of 1 year at a minimum $15/hr wage” or “Attainment of 2-4 year college degree”.

2. Engage the Population: Leverage Human-Centered Design (HCD) principles to solicit feedback and insights while co-developing policy and practice solutions to program inefficiencies. This was done using focus groups and surveys in GA and KY. 

  • Tip: When possible, Third Sector compensates participants for their expertise and shares how their insights will be taken into account and implemented. 

3. Map Out the Journey: Map out what the different journeys and paths might look like for this population in pursuit of achieving the outcomes in #1. What other agencies work with this population? At what points in the journey do they work with them? Are there opportunities for collaboration? In GA and KY, journey maps were confirmed with staff and participants.

  • Tip: Third Sector develops Journey Maps alongside the specified population by leveraging Recommendation #2.

4. Engage Frontline Staff: Engage staff that work with multiple programs or services to identify opportunities for partnership and collaboration. In KY, frontline TANF staff brought in knowledge about and ideas for SNAP E&T.

  • Tip: Third Sector emphasizes that a trusting relationship is key to getting creative and innovative program solutions.

5. Explore Data Sharing Opportunities: Leverage the overlap in outcomes that define success for different programs through data-sharing agreements and continuous improvement (e.g. what outcome data does your agency currently have? What outcome data exists in other agencies’ infrastructures?). KY and GA  tracked education, career, and family well-being measures. 

  • Tip: Third Sector suggests using a Results Based Accountability (RBA) framework to discuss and analyze the changes that need to be made based on the data.

Site Strategies: Takeaways in Practice

Agency siloes, all too common in government, create barriers to service access, stifle data-driven program evaluation, and create an unengaging journey through human services programs. Foster care support programs, for example, may have little insight into training and workforce development services impacting young people in care.  Similarly, TANF case managers may not have the same performance and outcome information as the agency’s policy experts. In Georgia, DFCS comprises both the Child Welfare office and the economic mobility-focused Office of Family Independence (OFI), a unique agency structure that creates a historically untapped opportunity for collaboration and data sharing to support underserved populations. These two co-housed offices were interested in bridging the service gap by connecting young parents exiting the foster care system with assistance from OFI that can help them meet their basic needs and set a pathway for economic mobility. In Kentucky, DCBS saw a similar situation occur between their TANF policy division (Division of Family Support) and the TANF implementation division (Division of Service Regions). Due to a lack of alignment on priority outcomes and data sharing, DFS and DSR spent little time collaborating over the past 5+ years, developing TANF policy focused on outcomes and TANF practice focused on compliance. DFCS and DCBS engaged Third Sector to find ways to address young parents' barriers to long-term economic well-being for them and their children. 

Division of Family and Children Services, GA

DFCS in DeKalb County (Metro Atlanta) and Third Sector first approached the project by better understanding the journeys that young parents might take through foster care, aging out of foster care, and potentially applying and enrolling in OFI programs like TANF. Through this 3-week iterative exercise facilitated by Third Sector, DFCS was able to see how both Child Welfare and OFI services impacted the same populations at different points in the journey and identified where barriers to success might exist and what opportunities there were to address those barriers. Third Sector supported this process through engaging 17 young parents in a focus group focused on the successes and challenges of transitioning out of care and gathering young parents' insights on how to resolve major barriers like insufficient transition meetings and lack of peer support opportunities. Without having both offices at the table, DFCS would not have been able to design the personalized foster care transition steps that address young parents moving from the foster care system to economic well-being and/or public assistance. Child Welfare and OFI plan to continue committing to this partnership by expanding the pilot from DeKalb to nearby Fulton County in early 2021 with guidance from Third Sector.

“We took the opportunity to bring in our partners at [OFI] and build a framework of collaboration...we have built a model and a continuum of work where, if we try to solve any other issue with internal collaboration, we believe we can now do it between these partners.”

- Lamar Smith, Former DeKalb Director of Child Welfare

Department of Community Based Services, KY

In Kentucky, DCBS and Third Sector determined the gaps in knowledge that case managers and policy staff had on how to improve employment and education prospects for young parents with TANF resources. DFS and DSR engaged frontline staff to better understand caseload trends and understand how to introduce a more personalized approach to KWP case management. Through eight focus groups with staff and surveys with young parents in KWP developed and facilitated by Third Sector, DFS and DSR collected qualitative and quantitative insights related to conflicting incentives between TANF policy development and day-to-day case management practices. Shifting the conversation from “all TANF recipients” to a specific population with nuanced needs allowed both agencies to specifically envision what successful program implementation looks like. Over a three month period, Third Sector guided both divisions on how their resources can improve long-term economic mobility for parents, and identified the challenges to achieving economic mobility outcomes. The reflective process empowered DFS and DSR to integrate department-wide goals and strategies including embedding racial equity, exploring ways to allocate TANF funding to community partners, and using human-centered design tools with the wider TANF population, expanding the overall departmental impact. 

"Through this project, we're looking at culture change, the way we collect data, and the way we plan long-term. I can't emphasize enough how much this has helped us collaborate and work between agencies throughout the Covid-19 crisis."

-Erin Kidder, Public Assistance Program Specialist, Division of Family Support

This work was supported in part by The Prudential Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.