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Overview
In the current era of performance management and more transparent accountability, the public, nonprofit, and private providers of human services are all attempting to understand what contributes to high performance and improved outcomes and to use that knowledge to strengthen their services. Many are examining the contributions that training, advanced education, staff development, and other organizational supports make to their frontline workforce—because they believe that workforce quality contributes powerfully and directly to better service outcomes. Preliminary examinations suggest that the frontline human service workforce is at risk due to an interrelated set of individual and organizational issues, including poor or lack of training, poor or lack of advanced education, and inadequate compensation and career advancement opportunities, all of which lead to underdeveloped staff, impaired service quality, and poor outcomes.   

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in conjunction with Cornerstones for Kids (C4K), developed the Human Services Workforce Initiative to examine the empirical evidence about the links among workforce training, support, service quality, and service outcomes in order to identify and document the most promising workforce development strategies. The results were intended for use in developing related policy, standards, and funding for the human services workforce. Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) contributed to this work by examining the research evidence about the links among training and other individual and organizational supports for the workforce, worker performance, service quality, and child and youth outcomes in four human service areas:

  1. Child welfare
  2. Juvenile justice and probation
  3. Child care
  4. Youth development and out-of-school time

Our Approach
HFRP has extensive knowledge of both the literature on workforce characteristics, staff, and professional development and the organizational supports necessary for high quality worker performance, particularly in early childhood and out-of-school time services. Our experience has shown the importance of specifying an ecological model of the relationships among individual worker characteristics, organizational supports, and labor market characteristics and policies and the ways in which these in turn affect worker performance, service quality, and outcomes. Therefore, we have begun our work by developing a preliminary model of these relationships. Our preliminary working model first assumed that worker performance is a function of individual knowledge, skills, and experience and of the contextual supports/constraints within the setting and organization within which the person works. The model was also influenced by key workforce policies and labor market considerations. 

We used this model as an evolving framework to array the empirical research in each of the four areas to get a picture of what evidence is available and what it says about (a) the linkages among worker and setting characteristics, (b) the effects of workforce investments and policies, (c) service quality, and (d) outcomes. As we collected data, we continued to refine the model to better understand the relationship between professional workforce and improved outcomes for clients, as well as what factors contribute to positive outcomes for children served in each of the four sectors. Ultimately, this research has contributed to our understanding of how to address the human services workforce in general to reach better outcomes for children and youth.

In our review, we paid particular attention to examining and reporting about research that suggests promising practices that can be shown to support key linkages across the model—for example, those between worker and setting that result in better service quality or demonstrably better outcomes. 

Research Questions
Examination of the four areas and subsequent comparisons among them allowed us to leverage the available research to address the following questions: 

  1. What evidence is available in the four areas to test the hypothesis that a better trained and supported human service workforce will result in improved services and better outcomes for children and youth?
  2. What are the strengths and limitations of the evidence? What are the gaps, and what, if any, research is in progress to address them?
  3. How strong a case can be made in favor of or against this hypothesis?
  4. What are the most strategic future research priorities?
  5. What does the evidence suggest are the proven or the most promising ways to strengthen the performance of the human service workforce to achieve better outcomes for children and youth?

Results
Harvard Family Research Project. (2007). Changing the conversation about workforce development: Getting from inputs to outcomes. A report submitted to Cornerstones for Kids by Harvard Family Research Project. Cambridge, MA: Author.

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