Systems Integration Q & A

What is systems integration?
What does it take to make it work?
What are the major challenges?

What is systems integration?

While there is no single definition of systems integration, it can be generally described as a strategy to improve services to low-income families with children. It is not an all-or-nothing approach; there are degrees of integration, from communication to consolidation. And there is no procedures manual that would apply to all efforts; states and localities innovate within their own systems in ways that complement the exigencies of their situation.

Integrated systems focus on the people receiving assistance rather than on the bureaucracies providing it, on outcomes rather than on processes. They require a shift in focus from delivery of discrete services to the holistic assistance of disadvantaged individuals and families, with the ultimate goal of helping people become self-sufficient.

Systems integration initiatives consistently present similar conceptual, design, implementation, and management issues, no matter how different individual projects appear. Systems integration involves developing a new way of thinking about human services and how to manage them; key is the creation of a new organizational culture and a new way of doing business.

What does it take to make it work?

There are two dimensions to the pursuit of systems integration that are critical to both understanding the character of any particular systems integration effort as well as identifying what it will take to make that effort work. These two dimensions are:

  1. Relationship intensity, which is the intensity of the interaction (or degree of blending) sought between participating programs and agencies (see below); and
  2. Institutional similarity, which is the similarity or dissimilarity of the institutional cultures of the participating programs or agencies.

What does “relationship intensity” mean?

The first dimension—relationship intensity—focuses on the character and quality of the relationships among participating programs and agencies, specifically, how closely the participating systems are blended together. This scale starts with efforts to improve communication across participating systems and steadily moves toward more intensive forms of integration. Ultimately, the farther down the scale one moves, the more participating programs and agencies forfeit some of their identities and defining attributes.

What does “institutional similarity” mean?

The second dimension—institutional similarity—is the extent to which integration efforts draw together programs and agencies that represent similar or dissimilar institutional milieux. An organization’s milieu can be defined as a “shorthand term for the underlying norms, values, and behavioral patterns that shape the way an agency functions and makes decisions.” Often, what best dictates an organization’s milieu is its fundamental purpose: Does a program essentially distribute a benefit, deliver a defined service, or seek to enable families to remedy difficult problems or transform behaviors and attitudes?

What are the major challenges?

Some systems integration efforts have stalled due to the inability to address administrative snags related to infrastructure and managing program operations during the transition (e.g., management issues such as decision-making authority and ownership).

Others have failed to progress because federal constraints limit state flexibility in some areas. For example, sometimes regulations preclude states from applying the same federal performance expectations, reporting requirements, and cost allocation protocols to their integrated programs, a commonality which is needed for successful integration.

Expecting too much, too soon is another major pitfall; any attempt to measure impacts prematurely may lead to false-negative conclusions; thinking of systems integration as an event rather than as an ongoing process will hamper efforts.


For a detailed discussion of federal barriers to service integration, see Hudson Institute with Center for Law and Social Policy, (January 2005), “Increasing State and Local Capacity for Cross-Systems Innovation: Assessing Flexibility and Opportunities in Current Law,” (Working paper) Indianapolis, IN: Mark Greenberg and Jennifer L. Noyes. (A summary of the paper’s key points is in: Mark Greenberg and Jennifer L. Noyes, (2004), “The opportunities for service integration under current law,” Focus 23:2.)