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Harvard center recognizes innovative partnership between NIU, Rockford-area social agencies

October 6, 2010

Photo of light bulbsA new program to coordinate social services for individuals and families that began in Rockford has been recognized as a “Bright Idea” in American government.

That distinction was awarded by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The recognition places the program on a list of some 173 programs (five from Illinois) that Harvard’s Ash Center believes might be useful to leaders across the country trying to improve their communities. Some 600 projects were considered for the award. The selected programs will be featured on Harvard’s Government Innovators Network website.

The Rockford program was the brainchild of Allan Barsema, a former construction general contractor who now serves as senior research associate for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives at NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies.

About a decade ago, Barsema began dedicating his life to serving individuals who were homeless through the Carpenter’s Place, in Rockford. Trying to apply lessons from his work in construction, Barsema realized something was missing from the social service sector.

“The homeless have issues in all areas of their lives,” Barsema says. “It was evident that rebuilding those lives required assessment and planning, as well as linkage and coordination of multiple specialty service providers. However, there was no equivalent of an architect or general contractor involved.”

The new program seeks to provide that central planning capacity for all clients who are served by a community’s network of social service providers.

It uses a specially designed software tool that allows human service providers including local governmental agencies, social service agencies and faith-based organizations to share information about individuals across a single, web-based secure platform. Clients can work with case managers anywhere in the system to develop a holistic service plan that helps them achieve their goals. Each client can then authorize the software to share that plan with whichever providers they trust, which allows the different providers to collaborate easily to understand the client’s progress and ensure better outcomes.

The program’s innovative software tools have been in development since 2000, when Barsema first approached the NIU College of Business for assistance.

Later, staff from NIU’s Information Technology Services helped further develop the software, ultimately enlisting a team of volunteer IT professionals from 14 Rockford-area businesses who continue to help refine and improve the product today.

In 2006, NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies facilitated a series of meetings among Rockford-area leaders to assess options for expanding the innovative program.

Those meetings created an entrepreneurial partnership among NIU, Carpenter’s Place, the City of Rockford, Winnebago County, the United Way of Rock River Valley and the Dennis and Stacey Barsema Foundation. The partnership created the non-profit Community Collaboration, Inc. to focus managerial talent on further developing the tools and on working with communities beyond Rockford to spread the idea.

”This kind of collaboration has been the dream of human service reformers around the U.S. for more than 30 years,” says Bob Gleeson, director of NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies and a member of the CCI Board of Directors. “Until recently, however, the IT technology was not up to the task and service providers were very skeptical. They care about their clients a lot, and they’ve seen many reform fads come and go. That makes the success of this project remarkable.”

Barsema’s software gives agencies a more complete picture of an individual in need and allows for the creation of collaborative goals and a way to follow progress toward attainment of those goals. Providers of everything from housing, to job training, to childcare and health care have a way to efficiently coordinate services to ensure that individuals are receiving the support they need to get back on their feet.

Today, the CCI product is used in six states by 200-plus organizations, helping more than 95,000 persons to rebuild their lives. It also eliminates duplication of services and streamlines delivery of help, cutting costs in the process.

Nowhere is the effectiveness of the program better demonstrated than in Rockford, where more than 25 agencies are engaged in the program.

Using the CCI software, the Carpenter’s Place is seeing more than 300 long-term homeless persons attain stabilized housing annually. It has reduced jail recidivism among homeless incarcerates from the county’s previous 88 percent down to 18 percent or lower, saving the county more than $349,000 in jail stay days alone.

Such tangible results are increasingly important, says Paul Logli, CEO of the United Way of Rock River Valley, who also serves on the CCI Board of Directors.

“The environment is changing for human service providers,” he says. “Funding – whether from the state, the federal government or private sources – is growing increasingly tight. So a tool like this, that maximizes the value of every dollar spent, is incredibly valuable.”

Barsema is excited at the Bright Ideas recognition, but is quick to share the credit.

“Collaboration has been the key to the success of this project. From the involvement of NIU, social service funders and local businesses in the creation of the software, to the sharing of information between social service agencies, this has truly been a collaborative effort,” Barsema says. “But perhaps the most important collaborators are the clients who reach out for help from their community, and who are willing to allow providers to work together better on their behalf.”