Delivering effective human services: Custom build, off the shelf or hybrid?

Delivering effective human services: Custom build, off the shelf or hybrid?

In the last 30 years, public and private organisations have all faced profound change in the way they operate and in the tools available to support new business models.

Recent instability at the federal political level and landslide election results in two of Australia’s largest states, demonstrates just how dramatically the rules and drivers can change for public sector CIOs overnight. Public sector organisations, specifically those delivering social services such as departments of human services, communities, families and social care often support huge numbers of people, sometimes almost the entire population in some way. They provide benefits and services that are complex to administer and are more and more likely to experience changes to policy and rules, may process millions upon millions of transactions (manually or automatically) and typically rely on ICT to deliver benefits and services to achieve efficiency and effectiveness targets.

CIOs tasked with delivering effective human services are often responsible for designing, delivering and implementing systems that will remain in use for 10 or more years. Yet, they often have to achieve all this, sometimes within months. They also have to do so while facing many uncertainties about budgets for ICT development where projects span several years. In addition, government priorities may change while still waiting for an ICT project to deliver a return on investment (ROI).

There are also numerous examples where social programs administered by the same organisation are supported by different IT systems, sometimes with incompatible software and hardware configurations.

Developing social sector systems for the future

Public sector CIOs are often faced with inflexible systems, shortages of modern ICT skills, complex legacy hardware and operating system environments and few proven upgrade and migration options. In other words, in addition to having to evaluate a raft of new technologies and new business models, human services organisations face difficult choices in how and when they will modernise their services because they have many constraints arising from decisions made many years ago.

It is not surprising that relatively few have rushed to implement general-purpose packages, designed for banking or industry that forced technical migrations but gave few practical benefits to mainstream operations.

A better understanding of the business benefits offered by new technology is only part of the problem. Vitally important is a roadmap that will allow human services organisations to plan a path, with visible financial and other returns, from where they are today to new systems that will prove more flexible and adaptable.

CIOs have three paths to consider:

  • Custom build

    Custom development offers the best or most precise fit with unique customer requirements but may also carry the highest risk of failure as a result of long delivery times and high implementation costs.

    Designed for specific requirements, the business can get exactly what it asks for but if an organisation has complex needs, the custom build can be expensive and take a long time. There is also a risk that the system may not be supported in the future and is difficult and costly to maintain.

  • Off the shelf

    There are several generic CRM and ERP packages that can be adapted successfully to meet standard needs that arise in many sectors. The degree of compromise depends largely on the scale of adoption and the difference in functional fit.

    An off-the-shelf solution may offer shorter delivery time and lower implementation cost at reduced risk but will rarely provide the complete functionality required to deliver effective human services. Packages may seem a good fit when procured, but because they are not designed and tooled to provide long-term flexibility, the total cost of ownership can escalate if requirements change.

    What can be even worse in terms of rising costs is an organisation maintaining its custom build type of thinking while using CRM and ERP package-based tools.

  • A hybrid solution

    There is, however, a third option for public sector CIOs to consider that delivers both the advantages of an off-the-shelf system and a custom build. Packaged solutions built purely for human services, provide government departments and their agencies with a system that can be implemented quickly, easily maintained and provide the functionality required.

    With components supporting both self and assisted services, case management, provider management, eligibility and entitlement, provider management and financials, provides human services organisations with the flexibility to mix and match legacy with modern components to deliver case workers the tools they need to do their jobs.

    By choosing a system designed solely for human services, public sector CIOs can gain both the advantages from a custom built system offering the deep functionality and an off-the-shelf solution, providing shorter implementation times and a clear development path over the coming years.

Public sector CIOs should also seek advice from consultants with a deep understanding of human services and how these organisations work. A financial services organisation does not have the same requirements as a social services organisation and it’s important the consultancy team has a strong track record of delivering similar projects for other social organisations.

In conclusion, when choosing a system to deliver effective human services, there is a better way. No longer do public sector CIOs need to choose between custom build and off the shelf. A packaged system tailored specifically for human services will help public sector CIOs meet the challenges of today, while providing the framework upon which to adapt and innovate as new legislation, programs and delivery models arise.

Brian Lee-Archer is director at Cúram Software. For further information visit:

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