"Doing What Works" with Amanda and Catherine

written by naehblog
July 28, 2010

Catherine An: Yesterday, my good friend and colleague Amanda and I had the opportunity to attend an all-day conference hosted by the Center for American Progress called Doing What Works.

Doing What Works is a project that aims to improve government. It has three specific objectives (that you can find here) but basically, the project aims to boost government so that it’s more effective, more efficient, and better serves the American people.

Amanda Krusemark: The conference was really fascinating and the thing that struck me most was that what makes government more efficient and effective – as iterated and reiterated by the speakers – are the same things that make nonprofits more efficient and effective.

It’s a focus on solutions and measures and setting goals. We learned from cabinet makers and celebrated thinkers that it’s critical to take some time at the beginning of any process for improvement or change to think through your goals and strategies. And it’s just as important to periodically check in throughout the change process to evaluate how you’re doing. One of my favorite moments was when Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan said that his biggest personal challenge (and the most important thing he does everyday) is to set aside an hour each day to reflect, plan, and otherwise check in on projects.

CA: I want an hour a day.

AK: Your hour a day is at the gym.

CA: True. And what a wonderful hour it is.

I was struck by how common sensical – is that word? – the recommended strategies seemed to be. The speakers – scholars and researchers and government officials alike – laid what seemed to be some elementary steps to improvement: be ambitious, set goals, define success, set measures for that success, monitor and measure progress, re-evaluate, and identify ways to make lasting change.

Doesn’t that all seem, I don’t know, kind of obvious?

AK: I don’t know, but it’s definitely something we need to work on. And actually, I think the federal strategic plan, Opening Doors, is an attempt to do that. It’s got lofty goals (five year goals for ending homelessness among veterans and chronic homelessness, ten year goal for ending homelessness among families, children, and youth), and it defines success (meeting these goals) and it sets measures for being successful (the plan has 10 objectives and 52 specific strategies). What we need to do now is make sure that the next steps – monitoring and measuring progress, re-evaluating, and making lasting change – actually happen.

And – here’s my advocacy hat coming on – our charge in the homeless assistance field is to hold government accountable for these next steps.

CA: Excellent lead-in, Amanda!

Yep, the thing that struck me the most was how much familiar the themes, ideas, and language used in yesterday’s workshop were! “Outcomes-based solutions,” goal-setting, “planning for outcomes”, an emphasis on “data and performance measures”: these are key phrases and concepts in our field.

And thinking about it now, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the two. I mean, I get comments all the time on our social networks criticizing the Alliance for the “intellectualization” of homelessness. Homelessness is a “heartstrings” issue – tugging on the emotional sensibility of Americans.

But finding solutions isn’t about heart – it’s about head (the heart helps – no doubt). We’re not going to end homelessness by crying about it and holding hands – we’re going to end homelessness by critically examining the problems, setting objectives, and using data-driven, evidence-based practices that we know work.

And that’s what yesterday was all about – doing what works.

AK: And, say hello to the advocacy hat again, (CA: if you’re interested in advocacy, you should email her) the great thing about all of this is that doing what works not only ends homelessness, but also convinces policymakers to invest in those proven solutions. When they have evidence to show something works, they’re more likely to put resources toward it. So we can do more of what works.

CA: There’s tons more that we could go on about, but we’re pretty loopy at this point and our old memories are beginning to fade.

AK: But if you want more information about CAP’s Doing What Works program, or any of the reports, documents, and studies we got yesterday (including a pretty interesting poll on what people want from their government, you should check out their website.

CA: Thanks for your patience on our first creative venture on the blog – we can promise more unwieldy experiments to come!