The Journey to Reframe Human Services – Part 1: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Going

By: Irv Katz, Bridget McCabe, Ilsa Flanagan
National Human Services Assembly with appreciation to FrameWorks Institute 

Presentation1It is a journey, an apt metaphor, because even when we reach our destination—a new and more relevant frame for human needs and human services that is widely adopted by the field—there will be implementation and adjustment and refinement over the years.

The image above symbolizes the effort: an understanding about the reality of the human services sector is clouded by the public’s strongly held perceptions and beliefs about human services organizations and programs. Resetting these perceptions and reframing our work to favorably reflect reality takes time.

Thank you for joining the National Assembly on this journey and for your patience as we progress.  In the meantime, there is knowledge gained already that can be applied to improving the public’s understanding of the enterprise we call human services.

Why we’re reframing

pic 1The notion of finding a better way of talking about and advocating for human services resonated with NHSA members and others in the human services field from the start.  You know the factors at play, perhaps the most prominent of which are that “human services are not understood or valued as part of the national purpose and we’re in an era when all non-defense public expenditures are questioned or tightly squeezed.   NHSA and its partners, including American Public Human Services Association, FrameWorks Institute, and the Kresge and Annie E. Casey foundations, have spoken with thousands of individuals and organizations, almost all of which have said, “Let’s do this!”

What we’ve learned

Work funded by Kresge and Casey, performed by the FrameWorks Institute, and disseminated by NHSA and others has gotten us well on our way.  We have a better understanding of the gap between what we, as experts, know about human needs and human services and what the public perceives.  We know that there are certain concepts that reflect commonly held American values that are better tools than some long-standing fallback concepts.  It will take further research, which the Assembly is very optimistic about getting done in 2015, to come up with a whole frame—that is, language, metaphors, imagery—however we can use existing research in the meantime.

The FrameWorks chart on Mapping the Gaps—pinpointing where what we as experts perceive differs from what the public perceives—is very instructive (below).  If you’ve been to one of our reframing workshops or webinars, you know that the gap is depicted as a chasm, experts on one side, the public on the other (see below).  Common terms about human needs and human services are between the two, with the perceptions of the two groups on either side.  For example, human services are viewed by the public as restricted to direct services, where experts consider advocacy and prevention as a part of human services as well…  Perhaps most significantly, the causes, solutions and responsibility of and for human needs and human services are considered in a structural (or societal) context by experts but seen as only “of” the individual by the public   The tension—between structural, societal goals and individual-level diagnoses—begins to chart a course for our reframing work.

pic 2

Starting here, starting now

Beginning to apply emerging frame aspects along the way is better for developing public understanding than waiting for a drum-roll and an unveiling of the ‘ultimate frame’ for human services.  It’s a journey, one we can take together and should bring our constituents along with us.  The adage, “people need to be a part of change to accept it,” applies here.

Share your thoughts about the concepts above, and find more of our resources here. And consider participating in the online FrameWorks Academy to increase your understanding of the concept of framing.  Here’s a link: For information about reduced membership pricing, contact Bridget McCabe (



The National Human Services Assembly (NHSA) launched a discussion in 2011 on why human services struggle for adequate funding and are little discussed or understood in the public square.  The discussion led to the notion of “reframing human services,” applying what has been learned in the social sciences about presenting the concepts and messages of an endeavor in ways that reflect reality and that resonate with the public (in an apolitical way).  Assembly members and many others in the human services field have been a part of discussions, research, and related efforts for nearly two years. 


One thought on “The Journey to Reframe Human Services – Part 1: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Going

  1. Pingback: The Journey to Reframe Human Services – Part 2: Here’s What We Can Do Now | Human Services Policy Network

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