Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inspired Today

Today I was inspired. That's not something I can say every day.

I attend a great many meetings and hear many speakers, but today I heard a presentation that really made me rethink an important area of public policy.

The speaker was Clarence H. Carter, the Director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. Mr. Carter was addressing a group of technology companies that offer health and welfare solutions.

The thrust of the presentation is that we have lost sight of the true goals of human services programs. We are spending too much time tracking the inputs and efficiency of distribution of the system and not enough time looking at the real results -- improving the quality of life for people who need a helping hand from government. Programs are divided into silos and people are forced to shuttle back and forth, applying and reapplying multiple times.

He argued that the fundamental rules of the game must change in order to make significant progress. If you were starting from scratch there is no way you could imagine, much less create, the Byzantine programs that are currently in place. Federal government forces states to comply with complicated rules and essentially creates the silos out of the gate. The status quo is maintained by the government and industry groups who benefit from the complexity of the system. Little wholistic consideration is made of the aid recipient, even though it is common for a person to need help from more than one program.

Technology is not the main problem, but rather entrenched interests and the resulting turf battles. Even well meaning advocacy groups end up competing for a fixed set of resources rather than uniting for their common causes.

That there are entrenched interests and turf battles is not exactly a news flash. What may be different today, however, is that our economic downturn may exhaust the patience of leaders and encourage more dramatic departures.

Funding is not really the problem either, as vast amounts of funding are devoted to social programs, but perhaps not properly allocated to achieve government goals.

The only thing I didn't like about his talk is that I had to follow him at the podium, and he set a high bar for me.

I'm a DC resident, not lifelong but for over 20 years, and I have chosen to raise my family in the District of Columbia. Mr. Carter makes me proud of DC government and hopeful that we can make progress in the pressing challenges that lie ahead. He also bolsters my faith in the judgment of Adrian Fenty for having the courage to choose Mr. Carter.

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