Data can empower social services organizations to understand how programs are affecting participants, but how do organizations fare against measuring multidimensional interventions that also require close collaboration? Do agencies have a holistic view of participants across a continuum of services provided?
The truth is, many organizations today are not using their data systems to proactively coordinate services or measure the success of collaborative programs. This is either because their data systems are unable to do so or because they don’t possess comprehensive evaluation strategies for their programs. Furthermore, organizations may face an additional challenge in agreeing on unified measures and data sharing practices between partner organizations when disparate systems are combined. How can we effectively evaluate programs when one organization measures individual participants in one unique manner and another organization measures households in another?
Collaboration as a force for progress
To be successful in addressing these complex social issues, it is vital that service providers work together, use a unified set of measures, and find effective ways to share data. Collaborative service models, such as the Cradle to Career initiative, have long recognized the immense value in sharing data and best practices to more effectively provide services to children and families. This can be done without compromising on program design and can lead to incredibly powerful results, especially when member organizations work together within a similar domain (education). But what potential challenges arise when participants face challenges outside of the program?
Youth Homelessness and a growing need for collaboration and data-sharing
Collaboratives focused on one service domain can quickly grow and expand their assessments with effective data sharing practices. Since the passage of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Continuum of Care (CoC) programs have served as the focal point for homelessness services in the United States. As services at some CoC’s have grown, so too have the diversity of programs provided and cohorts supported by these coalitions. Unfortunately, most Homelessness Management Information Systems (HMIS) these CoC’s rely on are not fully equipped to support this.
As an example, last year, Continuum of Care organizations nationwide undertook a broad initiative to reduce the number of youths experiencing homelessness, which raised an important question:
How can agencies evaluate the success of programs that require collaboration across different domains?
Data tracking and data sharing provide one potential solution. The Voices of Youth Count national survey, conducted by the Chapin Hall center at the University of Chicago, found that youth “who did not complete high school were 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than their peers who completed high school.” The same study found that 76% percent of the youth experiencing homelessness in the Austin area had experienced the foster care system, the juvenile justice system, or both. If outcomes specific to these domains could not be sufficiently tracked and shared across the broader community, then agencies may not be able to identify and address potential gaps in services.
Data systems designed to measure multiple services can be more effective in enabling organizations to identify and act on links between interventions. In the absence of these tools, many agencies lack access to or are unaware of other agency services available to their participants. Data sharing allows organizations to identify and understand the impact and potential gaps in service delivery on the same participants across different interventions. By enabling access to collaborative workflows like mobile access, referrals, and reporting, housing evaluation experts and education leaders could work together more effectively and explore solutions for the same individuals in the community.
This is why at Social Solutions we put so much effort into understanding the data challenges nonprofits and government organizations encounter across every domain. Organizations shouldn’t be limited by old software that doesn’t advance to address changing needs. We’re focused on learning from our clients, sharing the best evidence-based practices, and developing the best quantitative tools to help organizations achieve their goals and deliver on their mission.
 Kull, M. A., Morton, M. H., Patel, S., Curry, S., & Carreon, E. (2019). Missed opportunities: Education among youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in America. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
About the Author
Daniel Tihanyi is a data researcher with experience in evaluating enterprise data and programs. Before joining Social Solutions, Daniel worked as a data researcher focusing on program evaluation of child welfare, education, and healthcare public services for State, local, and private clients.