Connecting state and local government leaders

D.C.’s Foster Care App Illustrates the Importance of a Mobile-First Mentality


Connecting state and local government leaders

Many government agencies shy away from mobile apps, but the District of Columbia's Child and Family Services Agency recognized that’s just what it needed.

WASHINGTON — District of Columbia social workers for years lacked the ability to send and receive case information from the field, forced to take notes by hand or else commit things to memory.

The inefficient process meant more than 300 caseworkers typically started their days in the office receiving assignments, before making back-and-forth trips and winding up there filing paperwork late into the evening.

In June 2014, the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency awarded EastBanc Technologies a contract to develop a first-of-its-kind, mobile foster care app allowing social workers to interact with cases on the go.

“It’s definitely worth it,” said Kevin “Scooter” Ward, deputy chief information officer at the CFSA, in an interview. “I think it’s important that who you choose as tech partner needs to be someone that understands how mobile apps work, moves these things into production quickly and efficiently, and works as a real partner.”

District-based software company EastBanc mostly deals in the commercial space with big names like NASDAQ, Microsoft and Comcast, which—unlike most government agencies—emphasize problem solving through mobile solutions.

CFSA had an idea for the native app it wanted, but EastBanc delivered a tool within four months that lets caseworkers securely access and store data from the Statewide Automated Case Management System on their mobile devices in real-time.

“There’s so much to do in this entire ecosystem of foster care and child and family services that mobile doesn’t quite feel like the highest priority,” said Wolf Ruzicka, EastBanc’s chairman.

But by focusing on the “minimal viable product,” he said, EastBanc was able to get the first set of users on the system and pivot toward a sticky mobile app everyone was using with the next iteration.

A longstanding federal consent decree requires CFSA to oversee comprehensive child welfare and foster care reforms in D.C., and with that comes reporting requirements that must be met in a timely fashion—no matter how onerous they may seem. The foster care app helps social workers see if CFSA has been in contact with a particular child before and benchmarks data input into the system immediately.

Caseworkers can also pull up demographic and medical info on children should they have an allergic reaction, require a medical exam or be needed in court.

Staff has seen a “precipitous drop” in the time it takes to get data from the system, which remembers ancillary information, Ward said. And rather than being a line item forever, EastBanc is open to revisiting the app if and when the city needs them, he added.

A version of the app for foster parents includes documentation they need, while social workers’ version also enables them to take photographs and pass them along without an internet connection, schedule the most efficient routes between cases and map nearby gas stations that accept their government-issued credit cards—functions CFSA didn’t even know it wanted.

By starting with a mobile app, EastBanc built an API on top of CFSA’s legacy system, whereas other government agencies often complain about not being ready because of data siloes between systems, Ruzicka said.

“Look at your typical government app. It is just as boring as your typical government website,” he said. “The ability to have something that’s actually a delight to use, with a modern design that’s user friendly, is not ingrained in the culture.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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