Homelessness: Plumbing, Process, and Politics  

LA POLITICS

MY AUDIT - In his excellent short book on increasing government efficiency, Extreme Government Makeover, Ken Miller uses the analogy of a complex plumbing system to describe government processes.  Picture the process to approve a building permit as a series of pipes.  Each approval step is a valve where a decision has to be made, and once a decision is made, the permit goes down another pipe to the next decision point.  The length of time it takes to approve the permit depends on the pipeline’s capacity, and how long the application sits at a valve, waiting for a decision.  In some cities Miller has worked with, up to 75 percent of the application waiting period involves the permit sitting on someone’s desk, waiting for review. If the process can be sped up by decreasing the approval waiting time, the pipeline’s capacity increases, and the whole system will be more efficient.

Miller points out you can’t improve the entire process by making a change in just one part of the system.  Any process is only as fast as its slowest segment.  True process improvement requires a holistic approach, examining each step to see how it can be made more efficient from beginning to end.  Looking at the entire process can make improving efficiency more complex, but one advantage is that a complex process can be broken down into its component segments, and each segment improved by employees most familiar with it.  The segmented approach is the hallmark of efficiency improvement programs like Denver’s Peak Performance initiative. A group of employees studies its segment of a process and recommends changes.  A project coordinator combines each group’s recommendations into an entire process improvement package.

Because they are subject to multiple regulations and legal requirements, government programs are based on processes.  Effective procedures can guarantee all people are treated equally, provide transparency, and can make processes more efficient.  Miller warns us, however, the process itself can sometimes become the goal.  A building permit becomes less about assuring a home improvement was completed properly, and more about making sure the application was done correctly and all the official stamps collected.

Mistaking the process for the goal is common in all public and private organizations and homeless programs are no exception.  As L.A. County Supervisor Lyndsey Horvath has mentioned more than once, a typical LAHSA services contract can go through as many as 140 steps before being approved.  Not only is 140 an excessive number of steps, those steps have no tangible benefit on outcomes.  LAHSA’s lax contract management and tangled web of more than 1,000 service agreements is infamous for failing to deliver needed services to the unhoused and have done little to reduce homelessness.

I have reviewed three LAHSA service contracts; each is at least 250 pages long and stuffed with process-oriented requirements.  The terms cover everything from how to report client intake to how non-profit organizations treat their own employees.  What the contracts lack are measurable and meaningful outcomes.  Every contract has a small “key performance measures” section, but what is being measured aren’t outcomes.  They are workload factors like the number of shelter beds filled or the number of clients housed (but not how long they stay housed). None of the contracts contains true outcome measures, like the long-term results of housing someone, or how long it takes to get someone from the streets to shelter to housing.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to measure outcomes is because of the fragmented nature of LAHSA’s service models.  One provider might do street outreach, then hand off the client to a different shelter operation provider, who in turn refers people to various other providers based on need.  Another organization will provide housing, and not report back to the original provider on how long the person stayed housed.  This is one of the reasons why LAHSA and City seem to have so much difficulty telling us how many unique individuals achieve long-term housing; many people cycle through the system and are counted again by the various agencies. The City of New York, with a much larger population, has about half the number of homeless services contracts, and has a fraction of unhoused people LA has.

A given provider may follow all the processes and meet all the requirements of any given contract.  Compliance isn’t the issue. The root problem is all of these providers are following a process based on a failed model, No Barrier Housing First. LAHSA’s splintered service model and obsession with expensive construction projects means those in need rarely receive the services and support they need.  Providers are following a process that produces the wrong results.

A corollary to process improvement is that the process you’re improving must have value.  There is no value in improving an ineffective process.  Using the plumbing analogy, there is no point improving the waterflow if you just pour the water down the drain.  Much of the rhetoric about “improving” homeless programs is really about increasing the flow of funds to existing programs, most of which are demonstrably ineffective.  Mayor Bass’ Inside Safe initiative offers no new solutions; rather, it relies on expanding existing programs like placing people in hotel rooms.  Given that many shelters and transitional facilities are poorly managed, Inside Safe is doing little more than adding to an already failing model.

And that brings us to the final “P” in the article’s title, politics. I think most of our political leaders know they are supporting a failed system. Most elected officials were successful in other professions before entering politics, so they know failure when they see it. But they are under tremendous pressure to stay the course. Billions of dollars have been spent on existing programs, and they are loathe to admit the investment has been wasted.  Vocal advocates and other special interest groups clamor for more resources, and label alternatives as “hating the homeless” or cruel. Everyone from our state’s government to HUD insists No Barrier Housing First is the only solution to homelessness, even though there is precious little empirical support for that position. But the state and federal governments won’t write checks to local governments that don’t follow Housing First. By their nature, politicians go where the money goes.

But any political official who chooses expediency over the public good abrogates their claim to moral leadership. There is no shame in choosing the wrong course if one is willing to admit the mistake and change direction.  Unfortunately, most of our leaders, even those who insist there must be “accountability” among homeless agencies, continue to choose to support failed models. You cannot claim to hold an organization accountable knowing what the organization does is ineffective.

Political leaders must change their focus from supporting processes to demanding results. Only then will the crisis on our streets begin to subside. 

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)