When it comes to public-sector advocacy groups, I've long sorted them into three categories: The ones where the partisan politics of their membership renders them borderline irrelevant; the ones that act as little more than a social club for members; and the ones that actually are doing some good, smart political and technical work to help their members do their jobs more effectively.

For years I couldn't figure which category the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) fell in; it didn't really seem to do anything at all. Calls to APHSA for general information or for help in contacting folks doing innovative work in the field were an exercise in frustration and futility. But a recent meeting at APHSA's headquarters was encouraging for two reasons. One, APHSA contacted me and asked for a meeting -- something the group had never done in my 15 years of covering human services. And two, there's clearly new leadership at APHSA, along with new energy and a new sense of direction that is worth supporting.

The meeting itself was a briefing on the association's Pathways initiative, an ambitious and sweeping effort to help human services systems build up their capacity to meet four basic goals:

  • Achieving gainful employment and independence;
  • Stronger families, adults and communities;
  • Healthier families, adults and communities;
  • And the sustained well-being of children and youth.

It was also encouraging to hear from Anita Light, APHSA's deputy executive director of policy and programs, that the initiative is based on two key foundations that more human services systems are tuning into and/or getting better at: information technology and information on outcomes. Light even used one of my favorite phrases -- "outcomes-informed" policies and programs, versus "outcomes-based." Given the nature of decisionmaking in this messy, personality- and politics-driven system, Light recognizes the reality that nothing in the public sector is ever going to be outcomes-based. The most we can hope for is that policymakers and budget writers at least look at and try to digest a little data on outcomes when they're sketching out programs, policies and budgets.

APHSA is now working with members to highlight best practices in the field to try to achieve these four goals, but also to "scale up outposts of innovation," says Light.

In June, APHSA held a policy forum that included representatives from a number of local human services systems -- particularly those systems that are operating in very tough political environments -- that have been making progress on the human services delivery front. The forum also featured a host of high-level national experts, including an international twist with a presentation on welfare reform in the United Kingdom.

This is exactly what the field has been longing for and lacking: an active, unifying, intelligent and practical organization to bring cohesion and direction to a field that almost by design has been set up for fragmentation and isolation. In fact, one of the higher level issues that APHSA will be working on, according to Light, is a continued push on the ability to better coordinate human services and health systems, something that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifically calls for. "We're emphasizing the importance of human services being connected to health care," says Light. "How can we get Medicaid connected to programs like child care and [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]?"

To move that initiative forward, APHSA has set up a national workgroup on integration that includes state, local and federal partners, and encouragingly, also some private-sector partners with expertise in information technology and governance.

Light and her team have no illusions about the difficulty of the path they've chosen. The task of better system and program integration; of better working relationships between local, state and federal officials; of more logical lines of authority and communication between and among programs and governments; and fundamentally encouraging, supporting and highlighting "adaptive, responsive and nimble leaders" at all levels of government, is a tough one.

But at least there's now a clear leader in an effort that holds a huge amount of promise. With large-scale initiatives like the ACA, the upcoming reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and a renewed recognition that we live in a day and age when results have to start to trump bureaucracy and politics, APHSA is the perfect vehicle to jump on and help move the agenda.