Utilizing data as both an information-finding, accountability, and performance management tool.
Applied results-driven contracting strategies to improve Chicago’s homeless services system.
Helped a shelter increase the number of assessments it completed from 63% to 84% by collecting housing data metrics and collaborating with shelters to share resources and practices.
Driving Strategic Alignment Across Shelters
From the beginning, DFSS saw its RDC effort as a strategic component of a broader data-driven performance improvement framework called a Commitment to Outcomes. “RDC places the positive outcomes we would like to see for Chicagoans at the center of our work,” says Christian Denes, DFSS’s director of strategic planning and impact. “It’s a tool that aligns funding with goals and builds the foundation for continuous improvement with our partners.”
With critical support from Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab (GPL), a WWC expert partner, DFSS developed new RDC processes, including new request for proposal (RFP) and contract requirements, that supported its goals. Prior to implementing new requirements, the department provided shelters with a proposed list of metrics the organizations may be expected to report on during their contract period. Through a three-month pilot in 2018, which involved frequent reviews of data to improve outcomes, the City was able to refine these metrics with the shelters to identify those that mattered most to its North Star: getting more people into permanent housing more quickly. (Tracked metrics include the number of clients and households served, average number of days in shelter program, and percentage of households exiting to permanent housing.)
With lessons learned from the pilot in hand, DFSS then rolled out a new “active contract management” (ACM) process to a cohort of 18 shelters serving families as well as five others serving single adults. The department asked shelters to collectively develop a process map that showed all key activities they did with clients, from when they showed up at the door to when they exited. Completion of the coordinated entry assessment emerged as a crucial metric. This assessment, a national best practice required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ensures that clients are on the list to be matched with permanent housing resources. By collecting data on this metric and bringing shelters together to share best practices, DFSS was able to support one shelter in increasing the number of assessments it completed from 63% to 84%. (Offering more flexible intake hours proved crucial.)
The department’s ACM data review also revealed that a small percentage of families in shelters were accessing permanent housing through the coordinated entry assessment, based on prioritization criteria. Conversations with families and case managers underscored two additional reasons families often continued to remain in shelters: lack of sufficient income and lack of affordable housing. So Homeless Services Division staff ramped up efforts to connect these families with job training services, SNAP benefits, and/or DFSS’ Workforce Development Division.
DFSS was also able to bring data to the Department of Housing to articulate the need for affordable housing earmarked for households making 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI). This advocacy helped shape the $1 billion affordable housing investment plan unveiled in late 2021. Nearly 700 of 2,428 newly built units will be family-sized and 394 units will be affordable to households earning 30% of the AMI.
DFSS is still relatively early in its change journey. The RFP process and shelter contracts (which run on two-year cycles) were updated with key performance indicators for the first time in 2018, and the department has continued to improve its RDC processes through subsequent RFP cycles while also integrating the new approach into its other contracted services. “It’s helpful to think of active contract management as a learning cycle,” Howard says. “We have the goal of improving services right away, but we also take learnings from our service providers and apply them to our next request for proposal.”
Lessons learned by the Homeless Services Division have been shared with all divisions in the department, helping to build a culture of data-driven governance and sparking conversations about the strategic value of data. “Our next step as a department is to dig further into the data from an equity standpoint,” Denes says.