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A ‘Whole of Government’ Approach to Social Problems

The success of an intergovernmental, cross-jurisdictional effort to reduce -- and end -- homelessness among veterans shows the way.

Homelessness among military veterans has long been an endemic problem at the intersection of multiple public-health disciplines. Issues from substance abuse to housing prices to mental health care to re-training workers to disability access all contribute to veterans' homelessness, and no one government agency -- or level of government -- owns the problem.

In 2007, veterans made up one in every four homeless people in the United States. Since 2010, however, veterans' homelessness has fallen by fully half. Thousands of families a year now receive combined HUD-VA vouchers, and as of the beginning of this year the country was down to less than 40,000 homeless veterans. More than a dozen cities, from Boston to Las Cruces, N.M., to Mobile, Ala., have declared that they have ended chronic homelessness among veterans.

The story of how this happened carries important lessons for other cross-sector, intergovernmental efforts to solve some of America's most pressing problems. It illustrates that what is called the "whole of government" approach is more than a buzzphrase.

For a long time, various entities nibbled at the edges of the veterans' homelessness problem -- the VA paid for mental health treatment, HUD offered low-income housing, local services provided food, haircuts, counseling and other supports -- but not in coordination.

Soon after he took office in 2009, President Obama announced the creation of what became Opening Doors, the first federal strategic plan to end veterans' homelessness. It set clear, optimistic goals, including an end to chronic homelessness by 2017, and provided funding and strategic resources. Opening Doors had all the major components of a whole of government approach:

An unambiguous goal. Obama set a clearly defined objective, with a deadline. "Housing First" programs, which aim to end reliance on emergency shelter by moving the homeless into apartments, became the strategy to organize the ecosystem around ending veterans' homelessness. The White House didn't dictate exactly what roles everyone would play; rather, the clear objective helped actors organize themselves. The right actors, the program assumed, where those closest to the problem.

Defined roles. The VA and HUD collaborated on housing. The Department of Labor found veterans jobs. The Department of Education enrolled veterans in higher education. Collaborations ran so deep and detailed that the Department of Health and Human Services worked with the American Bar Association and the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to mitigate the problem of veterans choosing between paying child support and paying rent.

Autonomy. The president had announced a shared goal. Housing First articulated a shared strategy. And because of the way Opening Doors was implemented, agencies and nonprofits had something very important for solving a complex issue: autonomy. Instead of influencing providers with requirements limiting their behavior, the Obama administration enlisted state and municipal leadership to help solve the problem with their own favored approaches, leaving local leaders to implement the day-to-day logistics in partnership with churches, housing authorities and nonprofits. This included more than 600 services that receive funding from the VA's longstanding Grant and Per Diem program, which still provides more than 14,500 beds to veterans.

Buy-in. It might not have been easy to secure the cooperation of Republican mayors for an Obama initiative were it not for the obvious importance of this shared goal. The issue of veterans' homelessness resonated across partisan and ideological lines, so everyone could be expected to actively seek solutions instead of taking political calculations (think of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act) or doing the bare legal minimum.

An accelerated timetable. Thirteen cities partnered with the nonprofit Rapid Results Institute and the 100,000 Homes Campaign to begin boot camps, in which small teams were composed of people from diverse aspects of the ecosystem and given a 100-day sprint to improve the problem. Moving quickly, New Orleans simplified the application for subsidized housing, while Houston collected all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to receive support in one physical location, ideally letting vets show up and finish all their major paperwork in a day.

Heavy reliance on data. The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act required fund-recipient communities to track a standard set of data about homeless veterans. Teams surveyed homeless people to better understand the problem and drew on existing research and statistics to create a "vulnerability index" and triage tool to measure the urgency with which an individual needed a home. Many cities can now do something they couldn't do before for all of their homeless: estimate the temporarily housed population in all their shelters and programs on a given day. They can also track success data for those programs, such as length of stay, detox exits and income increase by time of exit.

The success of this collaboration to end veterans' homelessness shows what a well organized whole of government approach can do: unite service entities around a clear goal, provide support and a strategy, and unleash the creativity of the people closest to the problem. It's an approach that lends itself to many of the seemingly intractable problems that governments at all levels must deal with every day.

Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
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