Every good direct-service social worker has go-to people for resources for clients. They used to be in Rolodexes. Now we have contacts in our phones and (if you’re like me) lists up on the walls around my desk, too.
These connections are essential, many times, for getting what our clients need, and they personify the truth that–in social work, as in advocacy and in life in general–relationships matter. A lot.
I have often thought that there should be a better way to share these resources. I mean, I know that some of the appeal is the whole ‘inside hook up’ angle, but that’s really not a very efficient or effective way to run a service delivery system.
And, oftentimes, there’s nothing intentionally opaque about these connections in the first place; we just don’t have a very good mechanism for communicating things like, “So-and-so in billing is really great about connecting clients to payment plans” or “XYZ agency has bus passes”.
In our community and in others around the country, nonprofit social service agencies have instituted computerized databases to coordinate information among organizations, but, in my experience, these are more commonly used to make sure that clients aren’t receiving duplicate services in multiple agencies, rather than to increase the number of linkages among the various hubs in a social service network.
And that’s what we need, stronger connections to bridge the gaps in a fragmented system–linkages strong enough to be bridges for the clients trying to navigate resources.
I think that network mapping holds a lot of promise for this challenge. Our ability to analyze and visualize how different ‘nodes’ are connected, how strongly they are linked, and where organizations are isolated within the network has improved dramatically in recent years, with both technological advances (there are free network mapping software add-ins that are really easy to use) and with evolving theoretical understanding of network function.
What if case managers and therapists and all who have responsibilities for navigating the service delivery system came together, not just to give program announcements, like at many coalition meetings, but to really map to whom they are connected, and how, and on whom they most commonly rely for help?
What if we pulled those go-to people out of our contact lists and mental Rolodexes and put them up on the wall, with sticky notes that show who’s central to the network, who’s on the periphery, and who connects us best?
What if we used that information not just to improve our referrals, highlight those individuals doing the best work to facilitate access to the system, and figure out ways to work around gaps and inadequacies in the network, but also to get a better sense of how these coalitions and loose affiliations could be leveraged for advocacy?
What if we could solve some of the problems–the gaps and the apparent duplication and the communication breakdowns–in our social service delivery system, without building new organizations or adding services, just by weaving a network that covers the chasms?