Web Gives Twist to Human Services Arena

WASHINGTON (07/05/2000) - Several state and local social service agencies have launched Internet portals to help guide other government agencies and potential clients through the maze of human services programs and their complicated eligibility requirements.

The World Wide Web is uniquely suited to human services programs, these agencies say, because people can anonymously learn about programs that can carry a stigma - such as welfare or food stamps - without having to physically visit a government office. In addition, because a person in need may qualify for assistance from various programs or agencies, a Web portal can alert potential clients to all the services that might be available to them.

In Montana, the Virtual Human Services Pavilion began as a way for the state to meet the demands of welfare reform without hiring additional staff, which the budget wouldn't allow. The state's Department of Public Health and Human Services partnered with the state labor department to build an online job search system that allows users to look up job openings and post resumes.

"If an individual didn't have a PC at home, they could go anywhere that had Internet access," said Mike Billings, administrator of the operations and technology division of the health department. "They can do a lot of job exploration without having to go to an office. That same information is available to people who don't have transportation."

The site has evolved into a human services portal, allowing people to virtually walk through a human services building and access various kiosks, which provide customizable data about public assistance programs, child care, senior care and other services. The site also offers a "virtual assistant" that automatically provides a list of commonly requested topics - such as Medicaid, child support and long-term care - and allows users to search by keyword.

For now, Billings said, the site allows people only to obtain information about human services, such as welfare, without having to go to a government office.

In the future, officials plan to allow users to apply for welfare online.

Montana is also finalizing plans to add a criminal records history system to the Web site that would allow state and other officials to check the backgrounds of potential day care, group home or nursing home workers to see if they have ever been convicted of a felony.

In Palo Alto, California, officials created a human services portal to bridge the communications gap regarding human services. Because of an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle, many people do not share information with their neighbors and others in the community as much as they did in the past, said Sharon Murphy, coordinator of family resources for the city. "We said, "Let's create one place where people can go...and it will get them in the right place,'" she said. "It would also establish the connections they would need to take the next step forward."

The city is marketing the Family Resources site at 10 different public Internet access locations, such as libraries and community centers. At those kiosks, users can browse through a hard-copy version of the data contained on the Web site to become familiar with the Internet options. In addition, city officials have launched an "ambassador" program designed to train community outreach volunteers. The idea is to teach people about the site so that if their jobs bring them in contact with people in need, they can refer potential clients to the Internet resources.

Also, the site is available in four of the languages most commonly spoken in the city.

New Hampshire is using its Web site to promote a new tool called the Wired Wizard, which is software that screens people's eligibility for cash assistance or services. Although the software is available only via CD-ROM, the state plans this summer to Web-enable it so that various organizations, such as hospitals and soup kitchens, can determine in real time if a person is eligible for various programs.

Once a family's or individual's information is entered into the system, Wired Wizard screens for eligibility for all programs in the database at the same time, said Kathy Walker, director of New Hampshire's Department of Health and Human Services. The Web-enabled version will allow this eligibility data to be electronically transferred to the appropriate agency, so it will be in the system when a person visits a government office. The Web-enabled version will also allow individuals to screen themselves to see if they qualify for cash assistance and services.

The program works for the 110 state programs that provide cash assistance, 60 of which have hard-and-fast eligibility rules that require calculations. The tool is designed to make it easier for various organizations to refer potential clients to human services programs, Walker said.

"If we can get them to use the computer...it becomes a very cost-effective way to provide information," she said.

Despite the potential of the Web to expand human services to a larger population, the new technology could present some drawbacks for potential clients, said Richard Peterson, professor of sociology at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

"There's a certain way of thinking about information that makes the Web accessible to some and not to others," Peterson said. "It's new and it's different, and they're not used to it."

Some service recipients may have encountered a bureaucratic wall on previous attempts to get help. Now, they may have to overcome trust issues before turning to the Web.

"The mistrust is some misunderstanding of what the government programs will do and can do," Peterson said.

Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, North Carolina.

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