In late 2011, the Living Cities Income & Assets Working Group approved grants to embed financial empowerment trainings into the frontline of the homeless service continuums in Seattle and Louisville. Specific strategies included intensive financial coaching of case managers, new data tracking and client assessment strategies, and contract changes that would make financial empowerment strategies a required service throughout service providers. This approach of public sector-led innovation offers one critical avenue through which innovation can be incorporated into social service delivery at scale.

Our experience working with Seattle and Louisville taught us important lessons about how public sector innovation occurs on the ground, including the careful balance needed between the “process” and “implementation” of managing a large change in the homeless services continuum. Reflecting on these lessons and the work in these cities, we identified 4 levers for change that municipalities can use when instituting innovative approaches in service delivery systems with subcontracted organizations:

  1. Foster Collaboration and a Common Vision
    Stakeholder buy-in is critical to managing change in an entire homeless services system where that change is implemented by third-party organizations. Both sites expressed the need for regularly scheduled “meeting of the minds” that included cross-sector partnerships and multi-tiered convenings to help set a vision for a financial empowerment framework. While a municipality can play the convening role, it is ultimately important for the non-city entities that are implementing change to have input, and even ownership, over the process for change. This can’t happen at the very end of the process. The order of stakeholder engagement also matters (e.g. supervisors must be on board in order for case managers to buy-in). Establishing a common vision is a central lever for change and an important part of the “process” in managing a systems change.

  2. Educate Agencies Delivering Services
    Educating supervisors and front-line staff on the values of the desired change in service delivery and equipping them with the tools to implement that change is also a powerful lever for change. Through this education and training, municipal innovators can positively impact both the local nonprofit culture and the front-line staff’s approach to delivering services.

However, the objectives of the training needs to be clarified for project stakeholders from the start. In Seattle and Louisville, many case managers and agency staff felt as though they were already integrating financial services informally into their work and as such, training seemed burdensome and duplicative. Given that training is an ongoing expense and case manager turnover is at nearly 20%, it is important to clarify goals and outcomes of training early on. Properly framing the training and education is therefore crucial to successfully use this lever to institute change.

  1. Invest in Data Collection and Data Management Infrastructure
    Standardizing data collection and investing in robust data systems to track client progress ensures a clear, common tracking mechanism and also creates a framework that can be adapted for future programs. Both sites took advantage of grant funds to standardize data collection efforts. Louisville developed a downloadable common intake form that can be used across agencies and began efforts to create a common assessment tool. Seattle used grant funds to help to modify their database infrastructure to begin tracking client progress systematically. Now that both cities have expanded their data collection infrastructure, they can potentially use this data tracking system beyond homeless prevention services.

  2. Leverage Municipal Authority
    Municipalities have the authority to institute specific language in municipal contracts for delivering human services. In both Seattle and Louisville, it was important for municipal government to exercise this authority to catalyze change. Putting language in an RFP that mandates specific practices and approaches among subcontractors isn’t sufficient on its own, but it is a low cost and powerful vehicle that makes explicit the goals of the municipality.

As city and municipal governments adopt innovative approaches in place of old ways of working, the 4 levers above are important to ensuring successful implementation of public sector-led innovation when working with sub-contracted organizations.