Six powerful questions every government ought to ask to diagnose problems in social service referral systems

Government agencies frequently ask us for advice about how to improve their social service delivery systems so that the clients they work with are identified, referred, and enrolled in the right services. In our work with dozens of state and local government agencies, we have found that governments struggle to connect clients with the services that can benefit them most. Often agencies will fund program slots without setting clear priorities for who should fill those slots. And dropped handoffs, long waiting times, or unavailable services cause clients to slip through the cracks and disengage.

We have discovered six common questions that every government should be asking to uncover gaps in their social service referral systems and generate fixes that improve outcomes for their clients. While we use a workforce example here, these questions are equally relevant to any public agency delivering or contracting for social services.


Six SMR Questions

1. IDENTIFY: Are you overlooking clients who may be a good fit for services?

Common volume-based contracting structures between government and providers often result in easier-to-serve clients more readily accessing services. For example, workforce centers serve jobseekers who walk through their doors and request assistance, often missing unemployed individuals receiving temporary cash assistance benefits who are not aware of the support services offered by the workforce center.


2. ASSESS: Are you accurately assessing clients in a way that prioritizes the supports they need?

Without comprehensively assessing a client’s needs and circumstances to inform future service planning, a provider may fail to uncover persistent barriers to a client’s long-term success. For example, a workforce center case manager that conducts only a cursory review of a client’s work history is not likely to recognize the client has churned through multiple jobs in a short time due to a learning disability and unreliable childcare.


3. MATCH: Are you matching clients to the best fit services for addressing identified needs?

Even with a wide array of options available, staff often default to recommending services they are already familiar with rather than those that may be most appropriate for client needs. For example, for some clients, an unaddressed substance use disorder may be the underlying driver of their unemployment; however, rather than linking clients to treatment services, workforce center staff may instead recommend a standard set of workforce supports such as job search assistance.


4. CONNECT: Are you preparing clients and communicating with providers in a way that allows for a seamless handoff into services?

Without effective communication with both the client and provider regarding next steps, clients may fail to access or engage in services. Workforce center staff typically offer clients only a broad overview of employment services and put the responsibility on the individual to come back if they want other support—rather than discussing the benefits of specific services, introducing them to the staff member overseeing that service area, or working to schedule a follow up appointment with clear goals before the client leaves the center.


5. ENROLL: Are providers engaging every client in services quickly after a referral has been made?

Delayed initiation of services, often the result of high demand or poor communication between referral source and provider, can discourage subsequent engagement or contribute to poor client outcomes. For high-needs job seekers—such as formerly-incarcerated individuals reentering the workforce who face significant challenges in navigating the job market and a pressing need for employment—timely engagement by specialized staff can be critical for securing a stable job with quality wages.


6. SUSTAIN: Are providers following up and attempting to engage clients when they fail to show up for services?

Without set practices for monitoring client engagement and clear accountability for follow-up, clients can easily fall through the cracks. For example, training providers and case managers may not communicate in real-time regarding client attendance at training programs. Without immediate follow-up, a client who misses one or more sessions may fall too far behind in course material to successfully complete the training as planned.


We have seen these questions be powerfully deployed to help governments solve referral challenges across a wide range of issue areas, such as child welfare, behavioral health, early childhood, housing, and criminal justice.


For more examples of how governments have solved service referral challenges, visit or read about some of our projects: