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Saturday, July 19, 2008

What's Wrong with Care Not Cash? The Same Thing that's Wrong with Every Good Idea in San Francisco!

Posted By on Sat, Jul 19, 2008 at 10:31 AM

click to enlarge homeless.jpg
By Benjamin Wachs

Most Homeless Have Homes” is a great headline – people are still talking about it – but it’s not a surprise.

If fact, it’s amazing how many programs in this city have bizarre breakdowns around performing their basic functions. Hmmmm, makes ‘ya wonder: Is there a trend here?

Oh yeah. Almost two months ago, we here at the Snitch published an explanation of what’s going on with Care Not Cash – and it still holds up. More importantly, it tells you why we have this phenomenon of the homeless panhandler with an apartment.

It’s not, as C.V. Nevius claims, that the system isn’t asking people to become more self-sustaining. It does. The trouble is that it doesn’t track results. As the Controller’s audit of CNC noted: Care Not Cash uses “can only provide snapshots of the active (County Adult Assistance Program) caseload. The system does not allow for reporting on services provided to clients in past time periods.” Its two recommendations, in fact, were both geared towards accountability: create a unique system identity for each person in the program and track their outcomes beyond just whether or not they got housing.

The inability to track results is – as I pointed out at the time – a glaring flaw in the Care Not Cash system, and precisely the reason why most “homeless” people in it don’t change their lifestyles. As the old maxim goes: “What gets measured gets done.” Without accountability, any priority will fall through the cracks.

But it’s not going to be as simple as the mayor – or somebody competent – cracking a few heads and ordering up a new plan. The institutional resistance to that kind of change will be enormous … and it’s not coming from housing advocates. The city’s housing advocates have no problem with homeless people becoming self-reliant, or holding Care Not Cash accountable for providing services that might help that.

No, the problem is the city’s resistance to accountability. It’s literally wired in – as the Human Services Agency made clear responding to the Controller’s report. The Care Not Cash data management system “does not have the ability to record historical data on the Care Not Cash status of County Adult Assistance Programs clients, which changes over time.” Therefore “it is highly unlikely that (the system) could be modified as recommended.”

So while the Human Services Agency (which runs Care Not Cash) agrees in principle with the idea of accountability, and has got all kinds of committees and working groups making reports, it saw no problem with implementing Care Not Cash in the first place with a system that self-evidently made case tracking and accountability impossible.

You could call this an isolated incident, but only if you don’t read much. It’s an excuse that comes up from city agencies over and over again: “We WOULD be accountable, we’d really like to, but the systems we use just don’t allow it. Too bad; let’s move on.”

When the Marina Yacht Harbor’s accounting system was found to be woefully inadequate, here’s what the Department of Recreation and Parks said about introducing accountability to the accounting:

“While the accounting structure of Class currently corresponds to the structure of FAMIS, the department does not have the ability to integrate the two systems electronically. The Controller's Office does not permit the integration of subsidiary ledgers with FAMIS by any city department.” And “TMA does not interface with the department's payroll database - TESS. Consequently, reconciliation and auditing would have to be done manually and the department does not have the staff resources to devote to such a manual process.”

In other words … we’d love to be accountable, but our basic systems don’t allow for it. Too bad. Move on.

I don’t mean to understate the technical challenges here - I’m sure they’re real and considerable – but think about what they’re saying: because of Care Not Cash’s technology choices, THEY CAN’T TRACK THEIR IMPACT ON THE PEOPLE THEY GIVE HOUSING TOO. Because of the Habor’s accounting system choices THEY CAN’T KEEP TRACK OF THEIR MONEY.

These are not system glitches: these are city programs incapable of executing their basic functions because of the way the city decided to implement them.

And when you see this coming up, over and over again, it stops looking like a individual department’s SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up), and more like a basic allergy to accountability at city hall. Tracking results, and holding people accountable for them, is not even on the priority list – and so system set up, technology choices, and bureaucratic processes make it nearly impossible to do so.

All of which is to say that Care Not Cash, as an individual program, is actually doing pretty well for itself: it promised to spend less city money putting more people into housing … and it did. If you think that’s a basic good – and I do – then there’s no reason not to be pleased with the program (even if the people who say it takes too long, is in efficient, etc., are right).

Care Not Cash’s problem is that it’s a City of San Francisco program – which means that its flaws will never be fixed.

Sadly, that’s not a surprise either.

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Benjamin Wachs


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