Making Data Work for Arlington: Meet DHS' Michael-dharma Irwin

Published on June 19, 2018

People are more than just numbers. But there are times when numbers are the best way to help people. That's where Michael-dharma Irwin, quality assurance manager in the Arlington County Department of Human Services (DHS), comes in.

For more than three years, she has helped DHS programs quantify their impact on the community and coordinate their efforts. She also works with groups regionally and statewide to increase data sharing and transparency to improve County programs and service to residents.

Irwin was recently recognized for her contributions with the ACES (Arlington County Employee Successes) Award. She sat down to discuss her work, how it relates to the County's priority areas, and how she helps DHS provide high-quality service to all Arlingtonians.

[caption id="attachment_17211" align="alignright" width="300"] Michael-dharma Irwin[/caption]

Q: Share a little about your role in the Department of Human Services.

A: The Department of Human Services offers services that help Arlington residents in many different areas of their lives. Our customers range from infants to senior citizens, and their needs span behavioral healthcare, support for basic needs, and public health services. So, we offer a diverse set of services. I work with programs across DHS to measure the impacts they're having for residents in their daily lives. I also help coordinate efforts between our programs. When you have different staff working with a customer on so many different aspects of that person's life, it's important to bring them together and look at the person as a whole, or look at the community's needs as a whole, to figure out how we can make the biggest difference.

Q: Transparency and data sharing are priorities for Arlington County. How have you worked to improve data sharing locally and regionally?

A: Within the County, I represent DHS on the internal data steering group, which is a new initiative to help enhance our data analytics capacity and support open data projects. One of the challenges DHS faces is that a lot of our programs are state funded or federally funded, and they require us to use data systems that provide limited reporting capabilities to the County. I've been working with a coalition of localities from around the state convened by the Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources to improve access to the state data.

Data sharing is important for DHS because we need to understand how we're serving a person across different programs. Say we have a child who's involved with the child welfare system, and their family also needs food stamps or a housing grant or behavioral health services. If the data in those systems can't be shared, then we won't have a complete picture of the factors going on in that child's life. Sharing data also helps in planning services at the system level. For example, if we find that many of the seniors who receive home-delivered meals also need nursing supports to maintain their independence, then we can better coordinate outreach and services for those programs.

Q: One of your main responsibilities is developing performance measurement plans for DHS programs. How does that work benefit the County and its residents?

A: One of the challenges to using data in human services is that human services can be harder to quantify than some other services. If we're working at providing mental health therapy or crisis stabilization or economic supports, how do we know that those programs are working? Performance measurement plans help our program managers define the outcomes that we want from a program, how we know if anyone is better off, and what measurements tell us if we're meeting our own standards. Our performance measurement plans are key to our transparency initiatives. We've aligned our budget metrics with the performance measurement plans, and we publish them online.  We also use them as a planning tool. In addition to data trends, every performance measurement plan includes recommendations about how we're going to sustain high performance or make progress toward our goals.

Q: What other programs and initiatives have you worked on for DHS in the past year?

A: Customer service is a major focus for DHS. We want to make sure our customers access services as efficiently as possible and that they're connecting to the right services to meet their needs. In the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative, we're working with community nonprofits to understand the factors that can be barriers for people in poverty accessing services, and enhance our systems to reduce those barriers. I've had the pleasure of working with a group to improve data exchange systems—helping the nonprofits understand what services are available at DHS, helping DHS staff understand nonprofit programs, and working on ways to streamline information exchange to reduce paperwork for clients who need services from multiple organizations.

I've also been fortunate to be a part of the Child Care Initiative. I supervised the initiative's Risk and Reach Study, a comprehensive analysis of the factors affecting children under 5 in Arlington—where they live, trends in the population, risk factors that impact them, and the resources Arlington currently has to meet the demand for child care. That study integrated a lot of U.S. Census Bureau data, along with state and local data. It's the kind of analysis that many jurisdictions have to contract out, but we were able to complete it in house more efficiently.

Q: What excites you about the work you do for DHS and Arlington County?

A: One thing I noticed immediately when I came to work at DHS was the quality of our systems and our staff. Arlington County government has a very well-planned approach to major initiatives. It's also a great pleasure to work with coworkers who are committed to their jobs and so highly qualified and passionate.

I also appreciate that the work we do has such broad impact. Before coming to Arlington County, I worked with nonprofits, where we had a direct and intense effect on the lives of a small group of people. I find it exciting to work for the County government because we can have a more systemic impact on the broader community—we can do a lot to improve the quality of life of residents throughout the County.

Q: What is your favorite thing about Arlington County?

A: I think Arlington is very diverse and vibrant. I enjoy everything the County has to offer, from the restaurants in Shirlington to the Gulf Branch Nature Center.  There seems to be room for everyone in Arlington, and there's a real commitment to making this a welcoming and accessible community for all.