Unlocking Government’s Potential Through Fairness and Empathy

By Robert Phillips, President and CEO, Alluma

Everyone has the right to lead a healthy, happy, fulfilled life. But when we look critically at our society, it is undeniable that opportunities are not universal. Race, education, income, age, language, even the neighborhood we live in – all conspire to mean that we don’t start out on equal footing.

At Alluma, we believe that thoughtful policy and elegant technology have the power to move government and our society in a different direction. We believe great things can happen in government when technologists and policy experts co-create for the greater good – when we work together to create fairness and empathy.

The importance of fairness and opportunity to real equality.

I want to be clear here. Equality – everyone gets the same thing at the same time, regardless of whether one has an advantage or not – is important. However, equality won’t be achieved without fairness and opportunity – when everyone has the access to fair and equal treatment regardless of who they are or where they live. This is known in policy circles as social equity.

This distinction is significant for how we help people. When we fully consider who people are, what they’ve been through, and what they face day-to-day, we’re better at helping them. That is why at Alluma, we believe the most effective solutions consider not just who we are as individuals, but our whole experience in addressing the challenges we face.

Unfortunately, many of our institutions, particularly our public institutions, miss this mark. They don’t use the information they have, nor are they equipped with the proper 21st century tools, to truly provide the help and support to the people they serve.

More often than not, stigma and shortcuts end up filling these information gaps and lack of tools. Consequently, far too frequently, people who ask for help, get humiliated simply because they ask.

At the very least, feelings of dependency and powerlessness are reinforced when people bounce from one agency to another. After sustained exposure to this, it’s no wonder people who are finally the recipients of help see themselves as “undeserving” and “lucky to get anything at all”.

For us at Alluma this is unacceptable. We ask ourselves, “How can we help our public institutions default to visualizing people in need as our mom, our sister, our brother, our neighbor?” This means thinking about folks in a way that treats them like who and what they are – people.

Challenging how decisions are made in helping people.

If we are going to have systems that truly help people, we have to consider the challenges folks actually making the decisions are facing, day in and day out, and directly address them.

This is where the union of policy and technology comes in. Technology can help reset how people work, support, and encourage new behaviors, while policy is the core understanding of the human dimension of the problems we face – the driving need to instill more compassion, flexibility, and diligence in our public systems.

Melding policy and technology makes for better understanding and support of people.

We need systems to have a perspective guided by data, steered by 21st century tools, and incentivized by a policy framework. They must be driven by empathy, enabling systems and the people who work in them to realize their desire to help people. That’s particularly relevant in public systems in which workers have a high degree of discretion and autonomy. That is, no one is looking over your shoulder when you’re determining whether or not someone is eligible for help, or when you’re engaged in enrolling someone on the street or in an office.

Think of it like education. You can’t have a teacher carrying around a manual pointing to how they should teach each child. Teachers have to teach to the unique potential of each child – within the context of their school and subject matter. We want the same thing in public systems that provide help. Tools and policy can’t “manualize” a job, but they can cultivate impartiality, empathetic understanding and more effective support.

Consider the worker managing a caseload of 300 people.

Working at the policy level, what if we can simplify enrollment – streamlining requirements to only the most essential elements and exploring other eligibility-based programs for linkages. And what if technology could help the process move faster – reducing the time to process one application for Medicaid from 45 minutes to 5 minutes.

Once the worker doesn’t have to do all the documentation herself, she is then freed up to do what she wants to do, and what we need her to do – actually provide help. And with a more autonomous process, the individual, or the family, now controls their information. As a result, the worker is more likely to see the person in front of them as empowered, informed, and independent – embedding fairness and empathy in the system.

Technology can also help systems understand trends, tell us about their interactions with the public, and ensure their work, services and programs are built around a process that uses people’s actual choices and behaviors. It can help us develop the most effective practices that also help the people in these systems do the best job possible, such as strategies to prevent burn out.

Getting to social equity.

It’s dangerous for systems to assume we all come from the same starting point, and have the same or similar resources to call upon for help. Why? Because it just is not true.

While, yes, it is our responsibility for finding, and asking for, help when we need it, it’s also our right as a member of our communities to expect that our systems, particularly our public systems, will help us when we ask, doing so fairly and empathically. Simply, we have a right to expect that our public systems support social equity.

At Alluma, we see technology and policy supporting our systems to effectively balance doing what is right and fair for those of us who need their help.


Robert Phillips leads the strategic direction, fiscal stewardship, daily operations, and overall management of Alluma as CEO. A healthcare advocate and philanthropist, Robert joined the Board of Alluma (then Social Interest Solutions) in 2006, and became President of the Board and CEO in 2017. Follow Robert on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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