Thursday, January 24, 2013

Moving Forward: New approaches to tackling perennial challenges - signs of progress at HUD

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

When I travel, I'm often asked about "what's really going on" in Washington, D.C. It's a natural question, but also kind of a funny one, since it seems to presume that the mere fact of working or living in D.C. gives you special insight into what's going on in The Halls of Power. It's almost as if the whole city were in mystical communion, specially attuned to the harmonic frequencies coming out of Congress and the White House . . . (They are atonal, as you might expect . . . )

My response is usually the same. I don't have any special insight into the "fiscal cliff" or the use of filibusters. But I have been paying particular attention to what's going on in the housing arena, and here I can say that I've seen some important steps being taken "inside" the Administration that represent real progress in modernizing the approach that the federal government takes to tackling the nation's housing challenges

I'm thinking of three developments in particular: the rise of interagency partnerships, the implementation of a robust research agenda and expansion of technical assistance / capacity building efforts.

Some brief thoughts on each of these three items:

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and VA Secretary Eric K.
Shinseki are working together to tackle veteran homelessness.
Photo courtesy Dept. of Veterans Affairs
1. Rise of Interagency Partnerships. Efforts to bridge the silos of the different federal agencies have been around since before the dawn of recorded history (or thereabouts). But often they take the form of passing the hat around and asking each agency to chip in something on a common topic so that you end up with a really wonderful (or at least lengthy) cross-cutting report that explains how each agency will be contributing toward a common goal. When done in this manner, there's no real sustained interaction or shared endeavor -- no new way of doing business that makes it easier for local grantees to accomplish shared goals.

There have been exceptions of course -- for example, the Interagency Council on Homelessness has long played an important role in coordinating the work of the many agencies involved in combating homelessness. But this may be the exception that proves the rule as it literally took an Act of Congress to create it, and it has full-time staff to help facilitate its work.

In the last few years, multiple interagency partnerships have sprung up that involve sustained interaction leading to joint activities. For example, HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working together to help end homelessness among veterans, primarily through the HUD-VASH program; HUD is working with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop new approaches to promoting sustainable and equitable communities; and HUD is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the coordination of health and housing policies to help older adults and people with disabilities live independently.

2. Robust Research Agenda. I have long believed that better data on the performance of current programs and prospective program reforms are essential for breaking through the inertia of existing policies and vested interests to encourage the development of new program models that more effectively and efficiently address the nation's housing challenges. In recent years, HUD has launched a number of larger research projects directed at improving our understanding of what works. Among other things, these include evaluations of pre-purchase homeownership counseling, new approaches to helping homeless families, and HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency and Choice Neighborhoods programs.

These and other projects have been made possible through an increase in research funding provided by HUD's Transformation Initiative and renewed authority to work collaboratively with philanthropic foundations to fund larger projects. I hope to explore this topic in greater depth once HUD releases its forthcoming Research Roadmap. Stay tuned.

3. Technical Assistance / Capacity Building. These terms are subject to many interpretations, ranging from a very narrow construction -- training on the basic rules and regulations -- to a more expansive one that involves facilitating peer-to-peer learning and providing strategic consulting services to help communities develop more effective policies. A third activity -- training on how to effectively administer programs -- falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

For the most part, HUD's new initiatives -- including Choice Neighborhoods, the Sustainable Communities Initiative, and Strong Cities, Strong Communities -- have all been accompanied by technical assistance / capacity building services that fall on the more robust end of this spectrum. This is good news, as there is much to be gained from the facilitation of cross-site learning, the harvesting and dissemination of knowledge about what works (and what doesn't work), and the essential feedback this process provides into how federal programs can be strengthened.

It remains to be seen to what extent this new approach to technical assistance becomes embedded within each of HUD's mainstream programs, but HUD's One CPD TA initiative holds promise as a platform for doing so, and the development of HUD's new eCon Planning Suite reflects an understanding that local communities can benefit from improved access to good data.

* * *

As the Administration's second term gets underway, it will be important to chart its progress in institutionalizing these functions so that they become a part of day-to-day operations and thus persist beyond the end of the current Administration. But for the time being, let's start by acknowledging these steps for what they are—a good start toward the important goal of helping local communities use HUD programs more effectively to address our nation's housing challenges.

1 comment:

Tammy Mayer said...

I really appreciate that you've offered your ideas and insight about HUD! For those of us "outside the beltway" these insights into HUD's past performance as well as highlights of what we should expect to continue in Mr. Obama's second term are so useful! Thank you for sharing!