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Staff presents ideas for reworking social service contracts

Thursday, June 24, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city is currently deep into the process of reconsidering the way it engages in social service contracts. Last week, Health and Human Services Director David Lurie and Assistant Director Vincent Cobalis appeared before the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee to make recommendations on the way the city should prioritize community needs and procure the best social service contracts to address them.


Council members will consider staff’s suggestions on June 30 when they gather for a work session to set priorities and strategies going forward. In July, staff will then initiate the procurement process, followed by recommendations to Council in spring 2011 and the start of new contracts in October 2011.  


In his presentation, Lurie told the committee members that staff had begun the process of coming up with recommendations by reaching out to other communities around the country to learn about best practices when it comes to social service contracts.


Staff sent out a survey asking about cost, community focus, what processes were used in terms of prioritizing needs and investments, and how outcomes were evaluated to 52 communities. Eleven responded. Of those 11, staff followed up with three: Mecklenburg County, N.C.; Seattle, Wash. and Sacramento County, Calif.


In addition, staff held a series of community conversations among the city, the county, the United Way, and other private stakeholders. Out of those conversations and interactions with other communities, Lurie said, four primary social service themes presented themselves as priorities:


  • Safe and stable housing;
  • Mental and physical health;
  • Learning opportunities for children and adults; and
  • Employment opportunities and opportunities for stable income.

Lurie advised they evaluate each service category based on five criteria: unmet need, proven results, other funding, community impact, and city role/responsibility.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez said he was hoping staff would have provided the committee with more Austin-specific data and information before the work session. “We’ve created some categories but we really don’t have a history or a way of tracking success or non-success within our social service funding,” he said. “So when I look through these proven results as information I can use to rate a particular service or area … the benchmarks aren’t really definitive to the Austin area and (I don’t always know) whether or not, one, there are needs that need to be met; and two, they’re being met in a manner that’s appropriate or acceptable.”


But Lurie said that looking beyond Austin’s previous approaches was part of the staff’s process. “We’re trying not to limit ourselves to what we have been doing,” he said. “There might be some instances where we haven’t been doing a lot locally but there might be some models nationally that suggest there may be potential to have a greater impact and be successful. In some instances we wouldn’t want to exclude something by virtue of the fact that we haven’t done a lot locally.”


Committee Chair Randi Shade agreed with staff’s approach and told Lurie and her fellow committee members that she wanted everyone to look beyond what she called “existing categories” and get the city out of a “reactive mode” and into a “proactive mode” when dealing with the prioritizing and procurement of social service needs and contracts.


Lurie told In Fact Daily that he believed much of the work session would be spent talking about the balance between private and public entities involved in the disbursement of social services and how city investment could best complement other groups and leverage resources to fill in service gaps. “They want to look at what we’re doing and what the other funding entities in the community are doing,” he said, “and how we match up investments to get the maximum results.”

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