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City inches closer to new approach to social service contracting

Friday, July 2, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Two weeks ago the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee met to begin reconsidering the way the city engages in social service contracts. After that meeting, HHS Director David Lurie envisioned that committee members would spend their time this week discussing the proper ways to leverage the city’s limited resources and striking a balance between the roles of public and private entities.


He may have been getting ahead of himself.


Wednesday’s work session, though long and full of heated debate, didn’t quite get to discussions about matching up investments or filling in service gaps. Instead, under the guidance of management consultant Patti Summerville, the three members of the committee spoke in broad terms about looking for consensus on a vision of Austin and coming up with social-service priorities that would provide direction for staff as they redesign the city’s procurement process.


At stake is some $18 million in funds allocated for social services in the coming fiscal year. Council has charged staff with finding better ways to engage in contracts with agencies and organizations that reflect the Council’s 14 social service priorities, which include basic needs (food, safety, etc.), shelter and transitional housing, workforce development, substance abuse, child care, and youth employment and training.


Though the three Council members on the committee could agree about the importance of those needs, they disagreed on what factor in the bidding and funding process is most in need of improvement. Council Member and Chair Randi Shade said she believes that transparency is vital in terms of assuring citizens that their tax money is being spent on valuable services that are being managed properly.


She said that, as the process stands now, “It’s hard for me to answer (concerned parties), ‘Here’s why we’re funding what we’re funding.’ ”


Council Member Laura Morrison agreed with Shade but also stressed the need to firmly establish the city’s top priorities in terms of social services, whether they have to do with basic needs or drug treatment or emergency needs.  Summerville agreed, saying the purpose of the work session was to provide direction for staff by firmly establishing the city’s priorities – and, in doing so, its values – going forward.


The committee members spent the next two hours trying to come to an agreement about where staff should focus its attention when initiating new requests for proposal for contracts. They gradually came around to the idea of self-sufficiency as the primary goal of the social service process and settled on what amounted to a mission statement for the program: “Contract for services that promote self-sufficiency of our citizens.”


Lurie told the committee he and his staff would still need a more specific sense of how “self-sufficiency” could be codified and prioritized.


“If we can get to a half dozen or fewer categories,” he said, “and if we can get those categories in some kind of priority order, and then we make a determination how much of that 18 million will go into those categories, we can come back with recommendations.”


So the committee enumerated four areas they would like to see staff concentrate their efforts on when seeking nonprofit agencies to work with: housing, food, employment, and social/functional skills.


Shade urged staff to think idealistically as they come up with the next step in the process. “Create the perfect portfolio of contracts that we would be funding that promote self-sufficiency,” she said, “and then work backwards to create the kind of RFP you would need to get those kinds of proposals.”


Staff will appear before the committee for a status update on the search during the week of July 13. The committee will then take up the issue again at a special called meeting on July 23, followed by recommendations to Council in spring 2011 and the start of new contracts in October 2011.

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