Orlando Network centralizes Social-Service Hodgepodge

As communities grow, groups committed to one social cause or another tend to spring up haphazardly. Someone notices a need for a homeless shelter and works diligently to create one. Someone else wants to provide clothing for people burned out of their homes, and a nonprofit is born. Ultimately, a sprawling network of social-service organizations develops, each pursuing a separate agenda.

In Orlando, Fla., an effort is under way to use information technology to combat the weaknesses of grass-roots community-service expansion, such as the duplication of effort, inconsistent quality of organizations, insufficient documentation of needs and results, and the lack of a central reference system. The Community Services Network (CSN) of Central Florida (www.sundial.net/~csn) would unite dozens of agencies via a client-management database and ultimately would help streamline Orlando's hodgepodge of social-service agencies.

"If a hospital worked like social-service agencies, the front desk would ask you your name, your insurance provider and what you were there for," said Brett A. Clemmer, president of CSN, which is scheduled to go on-line this summer. "Then, when you got to your room, the nurse would start all over again and ask you your name and your problem. Then the doctor would come in and ask you the same things. Nobody would be sharing one chart."

CSN was created by area homeless-advocate agencies that were frustrated by the daily task of phoning around town to find available beds when too many people showed up at one spot. They thought there had to be a better way to find out what was available. "In the social-service sector, we need one case file in which we share information as appropriate so that we don't get to the end of the hospital stay and nobody has done the operation, or they've done the same operation three times," Clemmer said.

CSN's database will serve as a central repository for the sort of information people must supply ad nauseam when applying for aid: name, address, sources of income and emergency contacts. It also will include case histories that record the services the client has received in the past and descriptions of problems he may be having. Low-budget nonprofit groups will also save time and money: A colleague across town might already have created a record on a person who just walked through the door.

CSN's venture comes at a critical time. The public continues to demand that more be done with less; the federal government is transferring welfare responsibilities to the states; and the states, in turn, are under pressure to provide such help while tracking time limits on some forms of assistance. Meanwhile, nonprofit agencies, which typically operate on a mixture of public and private funding, are hearing a common refrain: If money is being provided, there had better be results. "The name of the game right now with funding is, if you can't measure it, it didn't happen," Clemmer said.

The technology movement got off the ground with some early grant money and the donation by the city of Orlando of a programmer's time. As the effort moved forward, money continued to flow from public and private benefactors who recognized the network's potential for improving social services. CSN's budget now is just more than $1 million annually, which is met by user fees (about $1,000 annually for the average agency), the United Way, and corporate and government grants.

On-Line Directory

Today an on-line directory of Orlando-area service providers is in place for network members, as is a searchable database with pertinent details about the types of aid available to clients. The database, which can be downloaded from CSN's bulletin board, is in use at more than 40 agencies in the four counties of the Orlando metropolitan area. The software package, which is written in FoxPro 2.6 and available in Windows formats, gives agencies the ability to generate instant statistics on their caseloads and services provided. When the centralized database comes on-line via the network's bulletin board-an Internet version is being discussed-such statistics can be produced on a systemwide basis.

Clients become part of the central database if they agree their records can be shared. They are identified only by number-Social Security or another assigned number if higher security is desired. Especially sensitive information, such as HIV status or psychiatric information, will be more closely protected. The ability to slice and dice data is expected to be a powerful tool for public and private policy-makers in understanding where additional money is needed and where programs could withstand cutting. The system will give agencies a wealth of information about what is happening in Orlando social services and what each group is accomplishing.

The central database requires nonprofit groups to share information about themselves as never before. It will quickly become apparent which organizations help the greatest number of people and whether that help did any good. "It's a scary thing to make information available like this. There are many agencies that are very cautious because what we are doing is a collaborative effort," Clemmer said. "You have to build trust. Agencies are being asked to work together that have competed against each other for funding, and this may affect their funding."

CSN is now exporting its software to other communities interested in setting up a similar network. The group also is hoping to become a player in Florida's implementation of welfare reform as state agencies begin to tackle the mammoth problem of sharing data after years of using incompatible systems.

"We live in a time where you can sit down and connect to the libraries of European universities, yet you don't know what social-service agency to go to when you get hurt and can't work for a month," Clemmer said. "Now is the time for a new era of 'connectedness' in communities. We've got to take advantage of the new technology."

Eventually, "the lines between the agencies will become fuzzier and fuzzier, and we will start to look at a client's success from a community standpoint."

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at sffvjw@citrus.infi.net.

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