Reflections on ISM & APHSA 2023

Reflections on ISM & APHSA 2023:  Modernization and Human-Centered Design in Human Services

North Highland had the pleasure of attending the 2023 APHSA + ISM conference in Kissimmee, Florida, alongside approximately 1,100 participants representing the brightest industry, state, and federal human services leaders. Themes at the conference included a focus on people and human-centered design, child welfare system modernization and integrated eligibility, mobile technology, automation, and the applications of various forms of artificial intelligence (AI). North Highland’s insights and takeaways from this year’s event are described below.

Focus on People and Human Centered Design

Human services organizations are using innovative means to attract, train, and retain top talent through a focus on people and human-centered design. Public sector recruiting processes can be slow, so state agencies are finding ways to identify prospective employees and engage with applicants sooner.

Training is focused on quality, supporting collaboration, and an agile mindset. Retention efforts take multiple approaches. Agency staff are hired and motivated to support children, families, and other beneficiaries but often bear heavy administrative burden. The capacity of case workers is stretched because of outdated systems and inefficient processes, which can lead to frustration and burnout. New staffing models provide support to case workers through additional or junior staff who complete paperwork, scheduling, and data entry and free up caseworkers to focus on people and their needs.

Vendor staff augmentation is another means to improve agency capacity. States partner with vendors who bring specialized knowledge of programs like SNAP and Medicaid during times of surge. Success with this approach has been noted during the launch of new systems and in supporting redeterminations.

Child Welfare System Modernization and Integrated Eligibility

Definitions and ideas about what modernization means have changed in the last ten years, while the importance of ensuring the most vulnerable remain eligible has remained the same. Advancements in processes and technology offer new opportunities to harmonize multiple programs and operations, but some common challenges continue to persist. States may struggle to redesign centralized recipient applications for multiple programs as questions from the programs are merged, making the application too long. Longstanding state operations may employ spreadsheets to maintain information about their program participants instead of an enterprise system. If multiple systems are used, movement between systems requires logging in and out and multiple passwords.

The key to overcoming these challenges is collaboration and alignment between business partners and information technology teams. Successful teams streamline or retire outdated processes and identify technology gaps. Communication ensures everyone is clear on what future changes mean for business operations, and even “bad news” is shared in the spirit of trust and transparency. Modernization to a rules-based system is designed to be intuitive, and agile methods adapt to new state or federal guidelines. A successful launch is celebrated often as releases are incremental.

Mobile Technology, Automation, and the Growing Use of Generative AI

States are capitalizing on opportunities for mobile technology, automation, and machine learning to improve operations and individual decisions. Significant positive impacts are noted from mobile applications (apps) and SMS technology (text messaging).

Beneficiaries can submit paperwork, sign documents, check the status of their application, and receive reminders about renewals from their phones. Caseworkers can complete work in the field with greater ease, reducing miles driven and office time. Automation, when applied correctly, expedites processes by reducing the number of times a worker touches a process and drives more efficient workflows. Virtual chat bots allow call center workers to focus their interactions on complex needs and questions requiring human support by taking over the information gathering and credentialing processes. Insights engines make it easier for workers to filter data for different programs and benefits.

The potential of Generative AI and machine learning are also growing across the industry. AI that is trained specifically on a single organization’s workflows and processes can help organizations pull useful information out of data and improve decision-making. A little AI can go a long way in producing predictive insights and highlighting relationships in data. Yet, while applications for mobile technology and automation are more widely understood, the clear use cases for AI are still being explored. States need to establish governance for AI, and guidance is needed about how to use the AI available and how to address security, data privacy, and equity concerns. Federal guidance on when to use AI, or even requirements to use AI, are anticipated in the future.


Public human services organizations are mobilizing for the future by looking across the entire human services operating model – people, skills, processes, technology, and more. This conference was a testament to that vision. North Highland, recognized by leading analyst firm Forrester in The Digital Transformation Services Landscape in 2023, looks forward to working with our clients to face the opportunities and challenges coming in the year ahead. Thank you, Kissimmee, and see you next year!