Almost exactly a year ago, I sat at my first ever executive steering meeting on Colorado’s child welfare case management system, Trails. Ensnared in the thick of a unprecedented pandemic that tanked Colorado’s revenue and derailed hundreds of projects across the State, we were over budget, way behind schedule, and had just identified the need for nearly 30 additional positions that were critical to finally transforming Trails into a stable, reliable system that delivers value to its thousands of case workers and families. In short, we were up a creek without a paddle, and oh yeah, there was a supervolcano erupting up ahead.
Stories like Trails’ are not unique in government. After decades of lagging behind the private sector in funding, hiring, and adoption of agile practices in software deployment, hundreds of state and federal systems are similarly built on Jenga-esque infrastructure, or straddled between a legacy and modernized platform, or saddled with technical debt. In some cases, system foibles cause some mild convenience. For child welfare, the consequences of system deficiencies can be drastic.
Trails, Colorado’s Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System, is used to track child abuse and neglect cases as well as services deployed to help strengthen families. Trails is used by over 5,400 individual users, including staff across the Colorado Department of Human Services, contracted providers, 22 judicial districts and 64 individual county departments of human/social services. Those 5,400 users in turn have over 70,000 unique contacts with children and families each month, from screening calls to the child abuse and neglect hotline to conducting safety assessments to connecting families with behavioral health services.
Trails is an instrumental part of supporting kids and families in Colorado. When the system works well, caseworkers have information at their fingertips to make informed decisions on how to support child and family well-being; when it doesn’t, caseworkers may be left without critical information to support child safety.
Despite the monumental challenges faced this last year, Trails has benefited from one major asset: the scores of dedicated, resilient, and downright scrappy team members who are committed to innovating and iterating in service to kids and families. Armed with the infusion of new talent and a strong desire to deliver for end users, the Trails team rolled up their sleeves and zip-lined straight into the incipient stages of a technical revolution. Over the past twelve months, we’ve strengthened the product leadership team by adding a Technical Lead, Release Manager, Scrum Master, and Quality Owner. We’ve implemented three new, dedicated scrum teams, each headed by individual Product Owners reporting to the Child Welfare Product Manager. Teams now operate in six-week program increments, consisting of two, three-week sprints, and have adopted a product mindset centered on maximizing our delivery of value to users.
This praxis may be old news for the private sector, but in government, we are still unlearning bad technical habits and replacing them with good ones. And they’re already paying out in dividends. In April, the team successfully deployed a major, weekend-long database and operating system upgrade that dramatically enhanced system stability. Shortly after in June, they deployed another major release that successfully moved 50% of all users into a single modernized system. Plenty of roadblocks remain, and we are still plenty entrapped in the toils of antiquated architecture. But for the first time, we are thinking and working differently.
The work is hard, but it’s also among the most important work we can do. Working on Trails isn’t just about making a better case management system. It’s about helping provide better tools for caseworkers to protect children. It’s about strengthening our ability to connect families with critical services. And most of all, it’s about finding new and better ways to help families thrive. So long as there are families in Colorado who need support, there will be a need for Trails, and a need for passionate and civic-minded individuals who can come help us serve kids and families better.
The work is hard, but it’s also worth it.
We are hiring a Trails Product Manager to lead a portfolio of product teams, support improved UX, and strengthen delivery of software to support kids and families across Colorado. To learn more or apply, please visit: https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/colorado/jobs/3119253/child-welfare-trails-product-manager.