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New Mexico’s surprising—and effective—solution to human services

How the state found relief by “gamifying” a critical agency when the pandemic threatened to overload the system’s resources

New Mexico’s surprising—and effective—solution to human services
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The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, promulgated in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 are hailed as the largest expansion of the U.S. social safety net since the 1960s’ Great Society. Besides checks for $1,400, a large majority of Americans will also receive subsidies for healthcare, childcare, and tax credits for families. But in the past year, millions of households dwelled in a state of emergency, with more than one-third in desperate need of help with food, debt, and housing. One in six families in New Mexico report children going hungry. More than a million people—half the state’s population—now receive food stamps and financial assistance after an early pandemic peak of 15,000 new applicants daily.

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While other remote workers marveled at their newfound productivity, frontline caseworkers at New Mexico’s Human Services Department (HSD) found it hard to keep up. “We use a task-based system, sort of like an auto assembly line,” explains the department’s director, Karmela Martinez. Even before the pandemic, she and her team had faced a problem undergirding much of modern work: how to see those tasks through to completion rather than toggling between them endlessly. The stakes were high because the difference could mean skipped meals, no heat, or worse.

New Mexico’s HSD director Karmela Martinez set out to measure her department’s “one and done” task-completion system.

The state had previously established a campaign it called “one and done,” which sought to ensure that any time a case was touched, the worker saw it through to completion. But that got Martinez thinking. “If this is important to us,” she asked, “then why are we not measuring it?” She set a goal to operationalize “one and done”—to open a file just once before closing it successfully—and turned to HSD’s partners at Deloitte to help implement it.

GAME ON

The problem, as both parties saw it, was twofold. One was defining efficiency—the metrics then in place rewarded opening as many cases as possible without necessarily finishing them. The other was stoking motivation, a problem common to any large organization, where workers are left to ponder, Am I really making a difference? Fixing the former was simple: elevate completing tasks ahead of pushing paper. For the latter, they adopted a more innovative solution: “gamification,” a process that utilizes a toolkit of trophies, leaderboards, and badges designed to encourage friendly (yet serious) internal competition. The Deloitte Human Services Transformation team had already deployed it elsewhere within state agencies to great success but, in this case, the technique felt insufficient. At least, at first.

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The team quickly understood that what may drive actual gamers might not apply to social workers. The answer, they realized, was to make helping other people the game’s objective—to track and attribute every check issued, every doctor’s visit, and ultimately every support enabled, to the staff who helped make it possible. The prize in this case wasn’t necessarily commanding the respect of colleagues, but ensuring that families were fed, cared for, and sheltered—and understanding that every case left open meant someone potentially missed another meal.

With this insight in hand, the Deloitte Human Services Transformation and HSD teams distilled lessons from caseworkers and their supervisors, created wireframes, and tested assumptions in a six-week iterative design sprint to not only redefine what mattered in terms of one-and-done performance, but also how it’s measured (in consultation with New Mexico’s public-sector unions). The result has three primary components: a social-impacts dashboard posting real-time results of the one-and-done mandate (every nutrition assistance, medical assistance, and other benefits piped from HSD’s systems); a leaderboard pseudonymously touting the performance of every caseworker relative to their team, office, and, now, statewide colleagues; and a task-weight simulator to help staff get back on track after a particularly arduous one-and-done task.

RUNNING UP THE SCORE

A pilot across a handful of HSD’s 34 offices and 1,000-plus staff yielded eye-popping results against a control group—a 70% increase in engagement rates and 15% rise in productivity, which, when scaled up statewide over an entire year, would equal an additional 5.7 million meals. The program is now, in fact, statewide. “I’ve never felt the mission and goals of our agency to be so relatable than during this year,” Martinez says. “And being able to have that data support us goes a long way for staff.”

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The program continues to evolve, with a public-facing scorecard that is useful for discussions with state legislators and new metrics to keep the game fresh. Martinez is in discussions with several of her counterparts in other states who are seeking to rally their staffs after a year of unprecedented challenges. From the Deloitte Human Services Transformation design team’s perspective, HSD’s success suggests the future of engagement with gamification will be based on intrinsic motivation rather than external kudos. That is, when you establish the “game” around an institution’s core values, the results are far greater.

The following people from Deloitte’s Human Services Transformation team contributed to this article: Rachel Frey, principal; Renu Pandit, managing director; Yeshwanth Kattegummula, senior manager; and Jack Petsche, senior manager.

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