Leaky Roofs and Windows

There's no time like hard times to take a close look at duplicative programs.
January 7, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Contributors to this column seem on the search for opportunities in what must be the grimmest domestic program environment in memory. Given the breadth and depth of the crisis, one risks sounding a bit cavalier to suggest anything good can come of it. As John Donahue recently remarked, before he went on to find a sliver of silver lining, "The downturn is bad news ... for just about everyone."

Such a negative outlook brings to mind that unsettling motto of budgeteers, "Nothing stimulates the imagination like a budget cut." However, I do have a proposal: Let's use the stress to collapse barriers that make programs less useful to consumers, inefficient to operate and unable to meet changing circumstances due to their lack of agility. And, I have a nomination.

For seven years, the Weatherization, Rehabilitation and Asset Preservation Partnership has explored the value of creating a single-point program for low-income homeowners to increase asset value and reduce heating and maintenance costs by helping them to weatherize and fix up their homes.

It may surprise you that the programs that offer weatherization assistance to low-income households generally work in a parallel universe to those that assist the same households with basic systems repairs for their homes. Furthermore, these programs operate in isolation from other energy assistance programs offered by states, localities and energy companies.

WRAP was developed by the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Energy Programs Consortium to test the feasibility and benefit of coordinating housing and rehabilitation programs at the local level. Eleven communities as diverse as Anchorage, Rio Grande City, Philadelphia, Chattanooga and Milwaukee have participated.

WRAP's efforts to coordinate programs might be summarized this way: Two rounds of eligibility applications reviewed by two different offices. Two different sets of housing inspectors making separate trips into the same home, one to look at weatherization needs and the second to authorize basic systems repairs such as fixing leaky roofs, replacing windows and updating heating systems. Two sets of authorized contractors trooping into the homeowner's house to make repairs -- all on different time frames and all scheduled for the convenience of the programs, not the homeowner.

What evaluators from the University of North Carolina found will not surprise any experienced public manager: coordination was "more challenging than anticipated by all those involved ... very difficult ... formidable." The litany of barriers ranged from variations in program eligibility criteria and procedures, timing and form of funding to differing program inspection procedures.

Worse, these differences reinforced and gave cover to conflicts over personality, turf and credit, as well as tensions among partnering organizations anxious to retain their scope or presence within the community.

In this chaos, low-income households got less than they were eligible for, and duplicative administrative procedures wasted resources that should have been spent on more houses, staff training and program supports.

Can we afford this? Of course not. In a fiscal meltdown at the state and local level, now is the time for major redesign of these programs, with federal agencies clearing the way for single-application processes, one-stop inspections and consolidated program delivery. WRAP's hard-won successes demonstrate the commonalities that far outweigh the distinctions that divide these programs.

Optimally, we should seize opportunities to identify programs serving the same clients for which the excuses for separate administration don't pass the "give me a break" test of the average taxpayer. Consolidate them from the federal level down.

At a minimum, get rid of the barriers for local initiatives to integrate administration across locally and federally administered programs. Attaining federal waiver authority is one tool to overcome these barriers. A U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution this summer proposed such waiver authority for the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and Health and Human Services specifically for the WRAP program. It shouldn't stop there, though. The Congressional Millennium Housing Commission (p. 40) proposed a federal waiver authority for housing and community development programs.

Whatever the public service, though, the lesson is the same. The current economic situation facing state and local governments creates an imperative and opportunity to streamline service delivery in order to reduce waste and improve those services. While predictable obstacles will pop up, they can be overcome if local procedural and political differences aren't allowed to overshadow the larger goals. Everyone will benefit from delivering more public value per public dollar by identifying obvious redundancies in programs and working collaboratively to merge resources.

It is time to reward state and local officials who are outcome-driven and willing to shake things up in order to maximize the potential of taxpayer money, and who dismiss the excuses and reward the entrepreneurs (both inside and outside of government) who want to deliver services better, simpler and faster.