Buy or Build Your Own Case Management System for Human Services?

Posted on February 21, 2023 by Andrew Pelletier

Your Current State

You run a social services organization and you're keeping all of your records in a spreadsheet, and now you are wondering if the investment in a case management solution is right for you. You're probably already having trouble getting the reports you need and making informed decisions about how to provide the best outcomes for your clients. 

How easy will it be to find information in the case of an audit? How quickly can you show your impact in the community and product reports for your funders? Now is the time to decide if investing some more into your existing spreadsheet and paper-based system makes sense or if it's time to upgrade to a full-fledged human services software system. 

After speaking with hundreds (and possibly thousands) of organizations offering various impactful services to their communities, I have observed specific patterns of data that are vital to any case management record. Each organization is unique, and like your own, they each have specific data points that are required for their particular field. The general patterns hold that the points I’m about to discuss are uniform with the majority of social service programs in need of case management.  By using this information, you can start to built out your existing system or make an informed decision if moving toward a SaaS platform for social services is a more efficient option. 

Vital Components

  • People. At its core, human services are about humans. This should be the foundational piece of your records. People are why you do what you do, therefore they are the most vital aspect of your record keeping. While the person can be broken down into various categories (i.e. demographics, personal history, income status, needs, etc.), you need, at the very least, an identifying device. Whether that’s a name or an ID Number is completely up to you, but you must be able to signify those people with whom and for whom you are working.
  • Services. The second most important data point required for case management is the services being provided for those individuals with whom you are working. Recording those multiple ways you help your clients can begin to create a visible pattern of successful versus unsuccessful outcomes, as well as give context to the support you’re raising.

    Elements needed in recording services should be:

    • The service name/type 
    • The duration of that service 
    • Any interactions between the client and the service (i.e. attendance, visits, etc.) 

Other details such as who administered the service, outcomes of that service, etc. are also helpful data elements to collect.

  • Notes. Collecting a historical list of all interactions with clients is paramount when collaborating on casework. This limits the duplication of services and conversations. It also protects your organization from false accusations and audits. Having a singular vantage point of all of these case notes is incredibly valuable, especially when compared to adding sticky notes to a paper folder.
    Notes should include: 
    • The author of that note 
    • A roster of people involved in the note (Clients, caseworkers, family members in attendance at a meeting, as an example) 
    • Date and time stamps on the interaction discussed in the case note 
    • The note itself

    This is an area where meticulous record keeping is very important. For example, if someone is moved from one care facility to another, but forgets to make the first placement as "closed", there could be confusion about who is where. This is mitigated in automated human services databases.
  • Documents and Forms. Love them or hate them, forms and documents are a vital part of every caseworker’s life. Whether you’re using a physical paper system or a digital solution, you need forms for intake, agreements, background checks, assessments, service agreements, surveys, and copies of vital records, and more. The good news is that they serve the purpose of keeping your work above reproach when audited. They also allow your team to coordinate efforts in helping others. Many organizations invest in a high-quality paper filing system with well thought out Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) about where the files are stored, who can check them out, and what happens when someone leaves the organization but fails to return a client's folder. 

    Another option is a cloud drive like Dropbox or Google Drive. You can organize clients into folders and then search when looking for something. Google drive even can search the contents of a PDF or image file. Other organizations choose to use a person-centric social services platform to keep these documents and forms in a digital format, so they can be stored indefinitely in a HIPAA-compliant secure repository.
  • Other Communications. Have you communicated with your client by text message (SMS) or email? Be sure to have a process in place to retain these communications and to access them as  they are needed. One way is to create a folder and then create a rule in your email client ("filters" in Gmail) to organize your communications with each client. This can quickly get overwhelming but it gets the job done for smaller organizations that don't have a lot of client growth. 

As mentioned above, these are only the essential components of casework. A list of nice-to-haves would include items such as employee management, easy-to-follow workflows, task management, and a way to make sure every meeting is synchronized with your phone's calendar. Every human service organization has unique needs, so you can surely think of a few more things that we've left off the list. 

Built to Support Your Growth

So, do you want to collect all of this data in a spreadsheet format or use a case management system? Either is correct. In big part, it depends on your organization's current level of activity and your aspirations for growth. As the spreadsheet file grows, tools like search and filter slow down to the point of ineffectiveness. While you may collect data in this fashion to start, your needs will grow as your organization grows. 

Human services case management software like Casebook offers a streamlined, user-friendly system that incorporates the needs of your organization plus allows room for growth by incorporating the thing that you haven't run into yet. While older social services software used to require extended timelines for implementation and lots of custom development, technology has advanced so 30-60 days should be enough time for 90% of SMB nonprofit and Government organizations to stand up a new technology system. Longer timelines used to make building an in-house system in Excel or sticking with paper-based processes more appealing that upgrading, but now it may be more cost and time-effective to subscribed to a SaaS human services platform. 

As you’re looking at the mission ahead of you, there’s a lot to think about and much toil ahead, but the results are completely fulfilling and worth the effort, time, and emotions spent. You are making a positive difference in our society. Proper case tracking, record keeping, and reporting will help you enhance your impact on clients and make better-informed decisions.