West Side Story, Officer Krupke and social program modernization


As I sat through another high school rendering of West Side Story, I thought about the musical, Officer Krupke and social program modernization. What do these three things have in common?

Well, the link between West Side Story and Officer Krupke is easy. Officer Krupke is a character in the musical. He is the much-maligned beat cop who tries to keep the kids on the straight and narrow. The link to social programs is also Officer Krupke.

The musical number “Dear Officer Krupke” lampoons how ineffectual the judicial, social, education and jobs programs were in the 1960s. This frustrated Krupke as much as the kids he wanted to help. As I listened to the song, I appreciated the depth of the commentary that Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics instill within the show. Here are some lines from the song:

“Deep down inside us there is good!”

The first chorus outlines the premise that all children, if given the chance, are capable of being good members of society. The point is underlined in the show, since the song is sung by teenagers who throughout the musical have the potential to get into trouble with the law.

“This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!”

The first step in the judicial process is all too familiar. The juvenile is brought before a judge who strives to redirect the youth rather than put him in jail. The juvenile is sent to see an analyst to understand why he is committing the crime.

“This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.”

The second step is to get him a job, based on the premise that idle hands can never lead to anything good. In the song, the lack of work ethic dooms this action, but the type of job (a soda jerk) is also a contributing factor. Would better education lead to a more inspiring job?

“This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen.”

The last step is jail, which implies that the loop will inevitably continue, and start again with Officer Krupke bringing the kid in front of a judge.

Although “Dear Officer Krupke” lampoons the lack of coordinated social programs, it’s based in fact. Breaking the cycle of recidivism has been the driving force on study after study:

The common thread among these studies is that incarceration doesn’t work. Integrated and coordinated social programs do.

Inter-agency integration and coordination

Coordinated social programs are a better option, but not an easy one. Government, healthcare and other social agencies must improve coordination to reduce program costs and enhance outcomes. Agencies need to work together, so they can answer questions related to:

  • A common sense of identity: Who is the juvenile? Who are the relatives? Who are the friends? What has been done? What were the results?
  • Cross agency alerts: When does the juvenile engage any service? When is there success or failure?
  • Aligned policies and services: What services should be provided at what time? In what combination, and with what follow-ups?
  • Metrics: What combinations of policies and services provide the best outcomes, and under what conditions?

The reality is that in many areas most agencies don’t have the answers to these questions. The ways agencies are organized and managed (sometimes by law) can get in the way.

Barriers to transformation

The delivery of services is often fragmented along with the agencies themselves. The providers of social programs services in a given area often are made up of disorganized islands of different systems and data. A number of factors inhibit coordination among agencies:

  • Jurisdictional boundaries: Often service organizations are structured along budgetary lines, rather than by outcomes.
  • Privacy laws and policies: Different regulations and habits determine which data can and cannot be shared.
  • Overworked staff: Agencies are drowning in paperwork, which leaves personnel without time to work on programs and services.

It’s important to look at the structure of organizations themselves first, then restructure IT delivery to match.

The role of IT in modernization

The transformation from the paper-based systems lampooned in West Side Story to today’s computer-based systems has the potential to make tasks simpler and improve cooperation. IT can help minimize or eliminate basic issues such as excess paperwork, but technology can’t fix a dysfunctional system. To achieve better outcomes requires the modernization and integration of social programs systems, so the efforts of multiple agencies can be coordinated. This fundamental change in focus from output to outcomes requires an integrated approach to IT infrastructure, with:

  • Access from anywhere, using a mix of mobile and desktop access.
  • Access by anyone, so the juvenile, guardians, teachers, and other people involved can get information that is pertinent to the individual’s role and responsibility.
  • Always available, so the system is rarely, if ever, down.
  • Security and privacy, so the system cannot be compromised and the data is managed to maintain privacy
  • Flexibility, so the system can absorb unexpected ebbs and flow of activity and new capabilities can be added to fit emerging situations.
  • Cost-effective operations, so costs are manageable and the number of system administrators is minimized

IBM can help

IBM Cúram Outcome Management software provides social program organizations with a framework and automated tools to create and manage outcome plans for citizens and their families. It is part of a larger suite of products that have been designed to simplify and modernize social program management.

To support the suite, IBM offers ways to safely add mobile access as well with IBM MobileFirst. To simplify and modernize, your IT department can also take advantage of  the IBM PureSystems family or leverage the value that they already have with zEnterprise.

“There is good, there is good. There is untapped good!”

Maybe it’s time for the kids to sing a different tune to Officer Krupke. With the right infrastructure in place, it can be possible to transform social programs. You just gotta understand.

Tim Durniak is Chief Technology Officer for Public Sector of the IBM Systems and Technology group. During his 31 years with IBM, he has exploited information technology to automate the day-to-day activities of a diverse set of industries including Electronics, Defense, Insurance, Public Safety , Automotive, Transportation, Telecommunications, Retail, and Social Services. You can reach him on Twitter @TimDurniak

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One Response to West Side Story, Officer Krupke and social program modernization

  1. Paul Dommel says:

    Tim, You are rockin’ the Social Programs community with this riff on West Side Story and modernization.

    Hats off to you! Technology today — and our understanding of how to use it — can help to improve outcomes and improve lives, even while reducing costs.

    IBM has solutions that enable collaboration between juvenile justice, social programs, and even healthcare programs. They are designed to address challenges like those that Officer Krupke faces every day. Deployed by experts in social programs, they help our clients to get real value out of their investment.

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