they can develop reports faster to meet funding, operational and strategic requirements
they provide data faster to help inform research
they can view data across the entire agency from a single, authoritative source
By the time Judith Cross was in her early twenties, she knew she wanted to become a social worker.
Now the Chief Executive Officer at RASA, Cross was initially inspired to enter the social services field after witnessing some family members go through difficult periods in their personal lives.
“I was really interested initially in the individual’s personal journey,” she said. “I was interested in what could be done to support people to actually create change in their lives, and I was interested in a career at that time in a very individual-focused level that would help support people to turn their lives around when they hit a rocky patch in their life.”
After training in social work, Cross began her career working in the field of child and family therapy. She later moved into administrative and management positions, before becoming CEO of the Centre of Personal Education (COPE) and then moving into the same position at RASA in 2001.
COPE and RASA had previously been one organization and, after Cross moved to RASA’s head office in Adelaide, the two organizations reunited to create a provider offering what Cross said is a “unique span of services.”
As a result of the merger, RASA’s services now range from family dispute resolution and couples counselling services to community development and training work, Cross said.
“We have a really well integrated range of services, all coming from a population health and primary health care perspective. This allows us to work across a range of issues with different population groups, looking at what sort of outcomes we’re achieving for individuals and also to measure what we’re achieving in communities or larger population groups,” she said.
Though RASA already had an electronic system in place to collect data when Cross joined the organization – a relative rarity in 2001 and an indicator of the organization’s forward-thinking approach to social services – the legacy system was limited in its capabilities and Cross knew the company needed to explore new options.
“We were already employing in part-time capacities people who were our business analysts, but they had real limitations on the sort of information they could tell us about who we were reaching, the sorts of needs people had, some of the presenting issues even, and of course there was also information needed to find out what sort of outcomes we were achieving,” Cross recalled.
“From a managerial point of view, we needed to find a system that would give us a combination of a client management system that’s administrative, but that was also focused on what the needs of our programs were, as well as one that would enable us to know what sort of outcomes we were achieving and help us manage our organization.”
Helping to lead the selection process for RASA was Sandra Vallance, the organization’s then-manager of I.T. Services (full disclosure – Sandra is now Director of Global Services at Athena).
Vallance asked frontline staff members from various departments at RASA to help evaluate the available software solutions, reasoning that I.T. people ultimately “won’t use the system on a day-to-day basis, so the people who use it should be a big part of deciding what you’re going to get.”
Added Vallance: “It’s also about people seeing other people’s perspectives” when it comes to evaluating software.
“There’s the admin people, there’s the practice people, there’s the team leaders, there’s senior management – each of those groups has really important requirements and by doing the evaluation together and by doing all the demos together and working through those scenarios, they get to understand what each other needs at a level of detail they might not otherwise. If you’ve all been on that journey together, you get what everyone else needs and where it all fits in the pie as well.”
After an exhaustive search, RASA shortlisted five companies and held day-long meetings with each firm over the course of a week.
“At the end of that week,” said Cross, “I have to say that, as a non-I.T. person, my head was totally swimming.”
One company, however, stood out for Cross.
Because of Athena Software co-founder and partner Greg Stanley-Horn’s background in social services, Cross and the rest of the RASA team found that Athena could communicate in a way other competing companies could not.
“The makers of Penelope actually came from a service delivery background, and that showed in the work. It showed in the thought about the product. And that was really important to me. And, secondly, on that theme, the makers of Penelope also were people who not only came from a service delivery background, they could speak my language and understand what I mean, and had already thought those things through.”
“We definitely knew that we were talking to the right people,” said Cross, adding that, with Athena, she felt “I had a group of people who were on a journey with me.”
As an example, Cross said she was wondering how to properly measure the success of some of RASA’s community development programs, such as the organization’s HIV Prevention efforts.
As Cross recalled, Stanley-Horn immediately grasped how this could be done and started to suggest options – to track the number of condoms distributed, for example – that would be legitimate indicators of program activity.
“And it was when he said that, I went, ‘Oh, we’re with the right people,” said Cross. “I’m in partnership now with somebody who can actually help me work out what it is that I’m doing with the system, and that was really important for me.”
Since RASA began implementing Penelope at their nine locations in 2010, Cross said the software has become an integral part of the operation of the organization and now provides management with a complete overview of their operations.
“We know who we’re seeing, we can get the demographic data, we can compare that to our results, we can track our outcomes and we can create a really good picture of what it is that’s happening in our organization and where we need to be making improvements,” she said.
Vallance agreed, adding that RASA now has “a whole-of-agency approach to delivering service to our clients, and we have such diverse services which are funded or paid for in so many different ways, yet in Penelope we can figure out ways to still make sure that staff are collecting the money and meeting all of those requirements. So it’s the whole-of-agency approach to a client, which wouldn’t be possible without Penelope.”
Implementing Penelope’s easy-to-configure system meant less burden on management resources, Vallance said, while Athena’s price structure and corporate culture also played a role in the success of the project.
“Athena Software has a lot of soul, and we love that. So it was a really good match, and it was a very good price – it was the cheapest, actually, of the options – and it actually required the least amount of management time,” said Vallance. “It was a lot less onerous on managers’ time – they were certainly involved in implementation tasks, but not necessarily in any ‘designing a system’-type tasks.”
Penelope is a comprehensive, flexible solution
The flexibility of Penelope has also produced some unexpected positives for staff and organization alike, Vallance said.
“It also allows us to improve safety for all of our staff. We’ve got safety processes that we’ve implemented through documents and triggers in Penelope, which means that all the right people have the right access to the right information, and that makes our practitioners feel so supported if there is those extreme safety issues going on with clients. So that’s actually been a bit of a surprising kind of benefit that’s come out of it,” she explained.
“In the end, for us, it’s the engine of everything we do now and it allows those things to happen in a really efficient and effective way for all of our services, which is certainly not something we could have achieved with the previous system.”
As well, Cross said using Penelope has allowed RASA managers to keep track of the outcomes and trends affecting the 13,000 clients they serve each year.
“In addition to the administrative element and the clinical processes, we have our management processes that are actually about saying, ‘There’s always ways that we can improve,’” she said. “Penelope feeds into us analyzing what we need to do to make those improvements. So we can now know how many of our clients coming into the organization are living with family and domestic violence, and then we can look at who is presenting, and we can do research with that.”
Said Cross: “All of these things mean that we end up improving the outcomes that we achieve for our clients.”