Innovation on the fly

The pandemic stretched Allegheny County’s human services network, but it also unleashed new innovation and collaboration to equitably support children, families and communities

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) has long been recognized nationally for innovation in its areas of operation, which include child welfare, aging, behavioral health, housing assistance and other community supports. But despite this solid foundation, COVID-19 strained DHS in new and unforeseen ways. In response, DHS tapped into the strength of its network to convene partners, identify gaps and elevate equitable solutions for families and communities navigating the pandemic.

After implementing a quick shift from office-based to home-based operations, one of DHS’s first major responses was a vigorous commitment to keeping its network informed. On Monday, March 16, DHS implemented a daily briefing system for providers and community leaders. Beginning at 4:30 p.m., DHS staff and guest speakers took turns sharing updates on urgent concerns—food distribution, access to testing, where to find childcare, PPE availability, emergency housing for people needing to quarantine and much more. (Audio, minutes and slides from every briefing are available at, DHS’s comprehensive COVID-19 provider website.)

“DHS did a first-class job of selecting content of broad-based relevance,” said Dave Coplan, executive director of the Human Services Center in Turtle Creek.

The vibrant, intense communication not only kept the county’s human services network constantly up to date but also spawned innovative collaborations. Staff and providers stepped forward in amazing ways, often far outside their normal job descriptions.

Beverly’s Birthdays, an organization that works with 90 child-serving agencies to recognize the birthdays of 30,000 children each year, couldn’t hold its normal parties during a pandemic. Instead, this modest-size agency of nine staff became DHS’s infant supply storage closet, filling important gaps not covered by public programs.

By early June, Beverly’s Birthdays had secured and distributed $120,000 of formula, diapers, baby wipes, snack packs, hygiene items and baby food. They did it through sheer effort—promoting a crowdfunding program, making arrangements to buy items at cost from Giant Eagle, scheduling pickups by 93 agencies, turning their small office into a warehouse with boxes stacked to the ceiling, and renting two portable units for extra storage space.

A Second Chance, Inc., Allegheny County’s primary kinship foster care provider, has 28 staff who arrange and oversee visits between birth parents, their children, and relatives serving as caregivers. When COVID-19 arrived, live visits became impossible. So a dozen transportation aides were transformed into a food distribution team, filling an important gap by delivering nearly 10,000 meals a week to locations across Penn Hills.

Additional stories can be found in the “On the Frontline” section of DHS’s COVID-19 website. 

Working proactively for equity

Jessica Ruffin, DHS’s senior leader of equity and inclusion, said she had to counter a lot of disinformation in the early days of the pandemic, such as social media reports claiming that Black people couldn’t catch COVID-19. “Also,” she observed, “people of color have less faith and trust in medical communities and public officials.”

Within a month of the pandemic’s arrival in Allegheny County, Ruffin held five virtual listening sessions—with representatives of Black, Latinx, faith, LGBTQ and immigrant communities. The sessions identified various issues that DHS and the Allegheny County Health Department could address. Some issues were group-specific, such as the language barriers facing immigrant communities; others were more cross-cutting, such as the fact that early drive-up COVID-19 testing sites were not suited to serve people without a car. The latter concern was addressed by supporting efforts that would give community health centers a greater role in virus testing alongside large corporate healthcare providers.

DHS supported the Neighborhood Resilience Project in training nearly 100 community leaders on virus-related issues so that they could proactively address potential sources of new infections, such as community-wide celebrations. Ruffin also pushed human services providers across the board to disaggregate outcome data by race. “If you deliver services by phone or video,” she said, “you have to be thoughtful about whether that is working for clients of color. If not, we may widen disparities.”

Acting faster and collaborating better

Governments are not typically known for quick decision making, but Erin Dalton, DHS’s deputy director for analytics, technology and planning, says the pandemic forced the agency into a quicker response mode.

For example, DHS moved very quickly to secure a large lodging location for its Safe Haven Hotel, a temporary isolation and quarantine facility for individuals who could not shelter in place safely. This project might have required months of legal and risk management review under normal circumstances.

Other quickly arranged collaborations included a shared recruitment platform to assist providers who might encounter unexpected staffing shortages and a partnership with Global Links to procure needed PPE efficiently.

On the other hand, Dalton recognizes that moving quickly can preclude sufficient gathering of input and consideration of multiple perspectives. She noted that Neighborland, DHS’s electronic public engagement platform, has become much more popular during the pandemic as a means of gaining rapid feedback on emerging issues but that real, ongoing public engagement requires constant attention and a variety of strategies.

Areas of improvement notwithstanding, DHS’s response to COVID-19 has shown the power of the network effect during times of stress. Quick pivots, meaningful convenings, open communication and creative problem-solving are valuable tactics for networks of any size or focus, especially as they continue to navigate the ever-changing realities of life during a pandemic.