In the midst of this pandemic, governments are focusing on what to do now to curb the spread of the disease, support employment and enable people to return to their lives. But what is the longer‑term approach to strategic intervention? The first impactful step is to understand that the definition of vulnerability is shifting — along with the role of government.
While everyone has been impacted differently, individuals and families deserve support to recoup what they have lost and rebuild their communities, states and the nation as a whole. There has always been a vulnerable population, but the definition and parameters of vulnerability are dynamically changing in this crisis. Families may suddenly find themselves facing a multitude of issues including unexpected health needs and unemployment.
Listening to voices that count
The first impactful step is to understand that the definition of vulnerability is shifting — along with the role of government. Since the pandemic, a large part of the population reaching out for help may have little or no experience with government programs. Many have rarely, if ever encountered this side of the government and do not understand the nuances. The inherent complexity of government programs may create another barrier to individuals and families needing the support. Even those who have received social services in the past may be surprised by the added delays and complexities overnment programs managed across multiple agencies on disparate websites create challenges when searching for assistance. This is compounded by a lack of coordination, concise communication, exponential delays and a cumbersome process than can take more than a dozen clicks to navigate to just one program application. These systems are clearly not designed for the significant increase in demand from COVID-19.
Connecting people with resources
While government agencies have been migrating toward a better way of administering services, this crisis is creating a catalyst for shoring up systems and doing things in real time. There is opportunity to jump in and help state and local governments migrate to a smart safety net and become more attuned to the needs of individuals and families. Through polling, sentiment monitoring and forecasting — blasting out to individuals by geography, demographics or zip code — it can be identified what individuals and families need now and directly connect them to available resources. Additionally, by asking them to anticipate needs for the coming weeks the state and local government agencies can be helped to prepare for what may be a tremendous increase in demand of a particular need. Linking that data to pressing issues and intervention strategies will help determine how the dynamics of this new environment is changing lives.
As we move forward into the recovery phase of this pandemic, people’s needs will shift — and hopefully, so will the level of available resources. Keeping the dialogue open will be essential. As individuals and families navigate a dozen or more government agency websites seeking answers, many will be so stressed and frustrated that they will throw up their hands and give up. By listening to individuals about their most pressing needs, connecting them to programs and anticipating future needs government has an opportunity to support recovery and resilience.
What we can do now
Government clients need to be strategic about how they deploy resources, particularly since many states and local agencies are already facing strict budgetary deficits. Empowering governments to understand the “voice of the people” will help everyone get back on their feet. The first step for a state would be to quickly inventory their available social service support state-wide, including websites and hotlines and directly connect people to requested services. Polling means designing questions around priorities and needs, not just open-ended surveys that cannot be translated into meaningful results. It is important to be thoughtful about how to respond and help remove barriers to accessing available support. Including information about access means mistakes, like telling people who are under a shelter in place order that there is a great resource, but it is five hours away from home, can be avoided.
In addition to providing this real time support for current needs, focus should be to leverage available information to allow government to quickly identify an individual or family that may be heading toward a crisis.