A Data-Driven Governance Test for Seattle: Transforming Homeless Services

A contract worker cleans-up trash as men sleep behind him under an overpass near The Jungle encampment in Seattle.

A contract worker cleans-up trash as men sleep behind him under an overpass near The Jungle encampment in Seattle. Elaine Thompson / AP File Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

Two years ago, the Emerald City was among the first to be named to the What Works Cities program and chose to focus on human-services contracting reform. What can other cities learn from Seattle’s experience?

NEW YORK — There’s no way to sugarcoat the homelessness crisis impacting cities across the nation.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray knows this first hand.

“We are suffering from a homelessness crisis that is growing exponentially,” Murray told a packed hotel ballroom near the World Trade Center on Tuesday, where 350 municipal leaders, data practitioners and other local government policy wonks from around the nation had gathered for What Works Cities 2017 Summit .

Much of his administration’s energies have been devoted to dealing with the impacts of the homelessness crisis, but his city, like so many others in the United States, is nowhere near close to declaring victory in that battle.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray discusses his city's homelessness crisis at the What Works Cities 2017 Summit in New York City on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy What Works Cities)

Murray’s tenure as mayor has been marked by contentious local political conflicts over how to best address the impacts of homelessness, punctuated by headline-grabbing and controversial actions to clear out select unauthorized homeless camps, like the infamous one called “The Jungle” under Interstate 5 near downtown, which public safety and health officials have deemed to be unsafe and unsanitary .

The challenge is daunting for Seattle. And it’s not for a lack of trying or failing to devote resources. Seattle City Hall spends a lot money on homelessness, increasing funding from $29 million in 2005 (in 2016 dollars) to $50 million in 2016. Yet the number of people on the streets increased on average by 13 percent per year from 2011 to 2016.

The mayor and other city officials don’t hesitate to point out that frustrating disparity at public events , whether it’s at the WWC Summit in New York or in front of constituents.

A homeless camp in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

Seattle’s struggles are about far more than housing. Like in other places, and especially on the West Coast, homelessness is the product of intertwined challenges including discrimination, economic inequality, criminal justice, drug addiction and untreated mental health issues. Designing a coherent, effective and agile human services response framework to meet those challenges isn’t easy. Compassion fatigue can strain that response network, too.

As Murray’s administration started to grapple with how to make some measurable impact in responding to the crisis, analysts argued, as the mayor told the What Works Cities Summit on Tuesday, that “we were funding a boutique system of [homeless services] one-offs but not an integrated delivery system” that actually results in the city helping the unsheltered find long-term shelter and stability.

While homelessness is a policy challenge that is often told through narratives of personal tragedy, struggle and heartbreak , in Seattle, it also involves something that, when you boil it all down, can be pretty boring to the average constituent but is incredibly consequential: municipal contract management.

That’s where data, analytics and performance assume central roles in Seattle’s homelessness story.

Performance-Focused Transformation of Homeless Services Contracting

In April 2015, Seattle was among of the first municipalities named to the What Works Cities program , a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that lends technical assistance and expertise to city halls across the nation that aspire to transform their operations and improve services through the implementation of data-driven governance strategies, techniques and best practices.

The focus of attention for the Murray administration’s collaboration with What Works Cities: Improve the way Seattle designs and manages its homelessness services contracts and find ways to measure the effectiveness of the resources City Hall devotes to its good intentions to ease—and, ideally, end—the crisis, and find better ways to utilize resources.

In November 2015, at the Code for America Summit, Seattle Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas noted, as Route Fifty reported at the time, that it’s easier to count “widgets,” for instance, the number of sandwiches that are handed out to homeless residents , than it is to measure the impact and effectiveness of the existing programs against the goals of long-term stability for those who are unsheltered, vulnerable and out on the street.

Last fall, the Government Performance Lab at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government—one of the What Works Cities partner organizations—hosted a workshop in Seattle to dig into the efforts to pilot new performance-oriented contracting models for homelessness service delivery.

Seattle’s contracting approach, as detailed in a Government Performance Lab report published last September, is built around consolidating contracts to reduce the administrative workload for Human Services Department contract managers and reorienting contracts. The new contracting models include standing up a performance tracking system; specifying performance goals; structuring payments around incentives; and implementing active contract management through increased frequency of reporting and communication of performance.

The pilot, which started in August 2015, involved five service providers whose work was measured against a set of goals, mainly around finding permanent housing and housing stability.

In the delivery of homeless services, data collection—which is vital for assessment and decisionmaking purposes—can be difficult for program administrators. Due to substance abuse, mental illness and other factors, specific homeless people can sometimes fall off the radar, which makes tracking long-term performance of outreach services, a difficult task.

The contracting model takes that into account, with some payment incentives based on data-completion thresholds of 70 percent and 90 percent—basically, the more a contracted service provider deliver complete data, the more their reimbursement is.

Discussions about contracting models and procurement processes are sometimes hard to digest, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Seattle’s efforts on that policy front hasn’t drawn as much attention as, say, the political conflicts that come with clearing out an unauthorized homeless encampment.

Fast forward to March 2017. Seattle’s efforts to implement new performance-oriented contracting models, part of the mayor’s larger “ Pathways Home ” initiative, are continuing in collaboration with What Works Cities and its partner organizations. In the months to come, more data will emerge from those efforts, which, will be used to make better informed decisions and achieve incremental victories. And through the What Works Cities framework, municipal governments can compare notes and learn from each other and adopt or adapt best practices.

That’s the good news.

But, performance-based contracting reform is one piece of the homelessness policy puzzle and something where results aren’t likely to be felt immediately.

While municipal data and performance evangelists and academic experts are, rightfully, excited about their wonky work, it comes at a time when the homelessness crisis has deepened and there are larger unknowns about the impacts of inevitable federal funding cuts for social services, including homelessness.

Murray and his team will face natural skepticism that their data-driven efforts are bearing fruit until Seattleites feel that the homelessness crisis that they see regularly is easing.

Seattle City Hall has to tell a compelling data-driven story about its work. And those stories of incremental process-oriented progress can be difficult to tell.

This video on Seattle’s work with What Works Cities, released Tuesday, helps.

But as the homelessness crisis persists, a video doesn’t really impact the course of the immediate day-to-day crisis.

Daniel Beekman, a city hall reporter for The Seattle Times , tweeted on Tuesday :

That’s true. The video is indeed nice and inspiring, but we’ll have to see what the resulting impacts are. In the meantime, there’s a lot more data to collect and analyze in the months and years ahead.

Stay tuned …

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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