Monday, March 7, 2016

MWHITF: Walking the Collaboration Talk


Last week, on March 1st, to be precise, the four co-chairs of the MWHITF met to debrief the task force's first meeting and continue planning for the next eight (8) meetings.  But, with the co-chairs so focused as they seem to be on logistical concerns (meeting places, types, coverage, communications, etc.), it's hard to imagine how they are going to get the task force to focus on all they've said they will in the 16 hours they have left together, especially as there appears to be no plan for how the task force will reach its goals, which, by they way, they have yet to agree on. 
The Multi-Focused Task Force

Also last week, the Mayor delivered her last "State of the City" speech to a large audience.  At the very end, she announced the formation of the task force "[a]s proof that we are the Collaboration Capitol [sic]."

This is not the first time it has been suggested that the formation of the task force is, in and of itself, something to celebrate.  Maybe it is, but proof of  collaboration?  Eh, probably not the sort that's needed to address housing/homelessness issues in our community effectively.

Salt Lake City Apartments
Consider: a Willamette Wakeup report on the task force's first meeting observed that, after viewing the Daily Show video on Salt Lake City's successful effort to reduce its chronically homeless population using a Housing First approach, no one on the task force asked where the brand-new apartments came from or what had to happen to make the program succeed. 

In case you're wondering, the Salt Lake City program succeeded because Salt Lake City providers learned to walk the collaboration talk.  Yep, they had to change the way they were doing things.  And they started by attending "process-improvement, results-oriented boot camps" developed by the 100K Homes Campaign and the Rapid Results Institute at the behest of HUD, the VA, the National League of Cities and other big-deal agencies.
Over three days, we [shelter and housing authority reps, reps from the VA and the Dept. of Workforce Services and others] engaged in a series of exercises that helped us challenge our systems, agencies, and processes. We set goals and agreements as a community. The result was a near-complete overhaul of how we work together...
Although it made sense to both the homeless system and the VA that the organizations should come together, our philosophies and service delivery mechanisms were drastically different. Before the boot camp we couldn’t fathom how to work cohesively enough to make a significant impact on the population.   
Sound familiar? 

During the boot camp, the nine attendees from Salt Lake City identified and eliminated every administrative and systemic barrier we could think of. We challenged each other, our beliefs, and our practices.
In three days, we were able to deconstruct every process and
A Civilian Boot Camp
systemic barrier to ensure our resources could be delivered as efficiently as possible. After the boot camp, we enlisted more support from street outreach teams, local government, funding agencies, and anyone else we could get to join in.
None of the process improvements we made were difficult on their own...we worked on the practical, nuts-and-bolts bottlenecks in our systems...We pushed ourselves to rise above our existing structures and habit of identifying why we couldn’t do things, and figure out how to make things happen.
You can read more about how this process unfolded here

You might be wondering, is this kind of systems analysis and change on the task force's agenda?  Not so far.  This is perhaps strange, given that the task force is supposed to be a collaborative effort whose purpose is "to identify and launch proven strategies that will reduce homelessness" and seems so enamored with the Housing First model -- the model that was such a challenge to existing systems in Salt Lake City.  It may be even stranger considering that, as noted elsewhere, they were told by the representative from the lead agency in the Continuum of Care for Marion and Polk Counties that the agency has never managed to succeed in creating a functional network of local service providers, and is looking to the task force to achieve this

Looked at another way, though, the task force's failure to grasp the need for systems analysis and systems change through collaboration is entirely predictable, given its top-heavy makeup and top-down design.  The task force might see itself as collaborative, but that's not the way it looks from the outside.

For one thing, contrary to the Mayor's belief, the mere fact of the task force's  creation is not proof of collaboration.  By that standard, collaboration is simply a function of arranging and attending a few meetings and voting on whatever one is asked to vote on.  That's a pretty meaningless kind of collaboration in this context.  

For another, you can't have 4 people making plans for a 20-member task force, plus the homeless community, plus the provider community, plus the wider community, and call it collaboration.  Yes, the four co-chairs have invited the other task force members to email them their suggestions or whatever, and yes, the public has similarly been invited to email the task force members with comments, but such one-way communications are not what most people would consider collaborative. 

The point is, a top-heavy organization with a top-down structure is not only a  barrier to collaboration, it is highly unlikely to recognize the need for collaboration of the sort that occurred in Salt Lake City.  This is very unfortunate, for obvious reasons. 

From the West Coast Mayors' letter to Congress
Finally, as if to deepen the deep irony in the Mayor's claim that the task force is "proof we are in the Collaboration Capitol [sic]", the very same day of her speech, the West Coast Alliance of Mayors sent a letter to Congress asking the leadership to prioritize appropriations for rental assistance programs and "significant increases in funding for affordable housing development", in order to help those mayors address the "crisis of homelessness and housing affordability affecting our cities."  As you can see, the signatures of the mayors of Salem and Keizer are missing.     
   

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