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Building Human Services Relationships

Public sector human services professionals tend to go into their field to spend time with lower-income families who are in need of benefits and services. And yet, many of those hours are often siphoned off to performing administrative tasks.

This has been a source of intense frustration, but here’s the good news: The future may be different.

In late 2022, we spoke with dozens of professionals in many different government fields in order to write about the future of government jobs. One of the conversations that gave us a sense of optimism about the potential for an altered future in human services was with Justin Brown, the Secretary of Human Services in Oklahoma. His team has begun to successfully automate some of the administrative transaction-oriented tasks, and as a result, Brown sees the Oklahoma Human Services moving to “build better relationships with the people we serve. . . We can redirect an employee’s time to actually being the social worker that they came to the agency to be,” he told us.

“We want to meet families before they become in crisis,” says Brown, who was the human services agency director until August 2022 and continues to serve in the governor’s cabinet as Oklahoma’s Secretary of Human Services. “This is all about repositioning our workforce to move earlier to intervene in a family’s life, so they never fall into a level of crisis.”

Some of the ideas taking root in Oklahoma that we think can be of use in other states:

Departing from centralized government buildings. Oklahoma Human Services had already committed to remote work prior to the pandemic, but Covid accelerated this movement. Currently, most of its job postings note that an applicant needs to be willing to work remotely.

In human services, remote work can mean something different than in many other state agencies. It often doesn’t mean working at home -- though that is the case for some jobs like call center functions. For Oklahoma’s workforce, the concept of remote work alleviates the necessity of people reporting to a central office, instead becoming embedded around the state in hundreds of locations, with memoranda of understanding that spell out confidentiality and other requirements, and the time and days that a worker will be present in places like homeless shelters, schools, law enforcement offices, hospitals and mental health centers. That way, “providers can meet people before they come into crisis and offer interventions and resources at an earlier stage,” says Brown.

One major advantage in the schools is that these placements support proper role alignment. “If we can put social workers in the schools, we can realign our guidance counselors to be counselors and our teachers to be teachers,” says Brown. “So, we’re investing in that process as well.”

What’s more, the movement away from central government offices is also having a markedly positive effect on rural Oklahoma – providing jobs and creating a newly expanded potential workforce. “Because of technology, we have an opportunity to embrace a much bigger, broader workforce in government,” he says.

Before, to be in a leadership position, a person needed to work in Oklahoma City where the central human services building was just hundreds of yards away from the State Capitol, he says. Now, “we have more high- level leadership outside of Oklahoma City than ever before. I think this is a real opportunity for rural America. It could be an absolute rebirth.”

Creating beneficial relationships. “I think we could see a day in the hopefully not too distant future, when a social worker for a government agency and a social worker for a hospital do very similar things,” says Brown, “In that way, statewide, anybody that’s in social work could be equipped to help somebody in whatever they need.

“If somebody in need goes into a hospital and they have a poverty issue, that social worker in the hospital should be equipped to help them solve their problem instead of just having to say, ‘You need to go to DHS.’ I think public-private partnerships are a tremendous opportunity.”

Brown points to the importance of cross-training workers so they can provide assistance that addresses a number of areas. “When you engage with an Oklahoma Human Services embedded worker that person isn’t just looking to answer SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) questions for you, they’re aware of Medicaid and housing vouchers and what’s available in the community that’s not just a government resource.

“It takes relationships with organizations,” he says. “And we’re building those deeply. When we embed workers, the cultures between government and the nonprofit sector start to blur and come together and I think that is extremely helpful in the long term.”

Emphasizing customer service. “We’re building a world class customer experience,” says Brown, “and that requires us to have people who are trained in customer service when they greet you.” As he envisions a client’s arrival at a community office, there won’t be someone on the other side of plexiglass to greet them, but a helpful individual who can welcome them as they enter and inquire as to their needs.

Taking good care of the workforce. Improving the way human services are delivered depends on employees and Brown appreciates that. “These people are completely committed to our community. For the vast majority, this is not just a job or a paycheck. If it was, you’d probably take your skills elsewhere.”

But if people don’t get the good feelings they deserve from their work, initial motivations can quickly dissipate in a sea of governmental fog. As a result, in Oklahoma’s human services world, managers pay attention as much as they can to an employee’s interests. “We’ve made sure to try to align the passions of the employee and the passions of the partner and location,” Brown says. Attention to training and to employee mental health has also accelerated, with a doubling of employee assistance program visits, group counseling sessions and a new app that provides a counselor for someone to talk with on a 24/7 basis.

There’s evidence that this is working: In the last three years, Brown says the turnover rate has dropped nearly 17%, moving in the opposite direction from many government agencies, which are seeing turnover increase.

This is just one of many ways Browns’ efforts appear to be bearing fruit. While there’s are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the issues of government, in human services or elsewhere, other states can learn some of these lessons from Oklahoma, tailor them to their own needs, and likely see the benefits accrue.


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