Finding Effective Strategies to Expand Data Use in State Human Service Agencies

The Family Self-Sufficiency Data Center initiative (FSSDC) was a six-year effort to further administrative data use in the human services, supported through a grant from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This report details the activities of the Data Center and reviews the effectiveness of various strategies to increase the accessibility of data on family well-being and the capacity to use those data for research and program management.

What We Did

Over six years, we worked with state and local human service agencies and researchers to compile administrative data sources capturing elements of family well-being; conduct technical assistance activities with agency partners; develop code, software, and other resources for analysts and researchers; and disseminate findings about data needs and best practices in the human services. We summarize successes and failures across these areas and discuss characteristics of effective strategies to expand the use of data in this domain.

What We Found

  • Support from agency leadership is necessary to make and sustain progress around using human services administrative data. Staff turnover, time, resources, and engagement also play a large role in the effectiveness and sustainability of any intervention.
  • Effective data use is difficult to achieve for a variety of complex reasons. It can be difficult to identify exactly what supports are needed, and those gaps may shift over time.
  • In order to be adopted, new tools and software must have a low learning curve and meet a demonstrated need. Examples of other successful users are crucial.

What It Means

The table below shows the lessons learned by each audience about creativity, flexibility, and leadership.

FSSDC Lessons Learned Applied by Audience

Administrators and AgenciesStart by thinking about questions, not solutions. Answers should create opportunity for multiple solutions.Learn from failure. Recognize that where you think you need to build capacity or focus improvements may not be what you actually need.Secure buy-in from agency leadership to support stability amidst staff turnover and competing priorities. Build on small wins.
TA ProvidersBe creative and adaptable, willing to try multiple approaches and adjust mid-stream. Look for how a problem has been addressed in other places or with other tools.Meet people, agencies, and technologies where they are at. Ensure partner questions guide activities.Deploy clear messaging about what TA efforts do and do not provide, about the benefits TA brings for the partner, and about what the partner will need to invest.
FundersIn funding data use initiatives, incentivize experimentation, and accordingly seek to measure success and failure and capture lessons learned.Enable flexibility in how TA is designed and let scope change to meet agency needs. Intentionally manage global goals and daily tasks.Provide prolonged, sustainable funding to support healthy and persistent partnerships. Follow progress on hard challenges and avoid becoming path dependent.
DevelopersStart with simpler resources (e.g., minimum viable products) to address single challenges rather than "one size fits all" solutions.Keep learning curves as low as possible and build off existing areas of familiarity if possible.Seek role models of successful adoption (peer adopters are most compelling).
Recommended Citation
Allard, S. W., Wiegand, E. R., Goerge, R. M., & Gjertson, L. (2020). The Family Self-Sufficiency Data Center: Lessons learned. Washington, DC: Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Research Consortium.
Lessons Learned