Performance Management & Ending Homelessness Amongst Veterans

On the OrgCode Facebook page I recently posted an article from about how the goal to end homelessness amongst veterans came up short. By their account, there was a one-third reduction in homelessness amongst veterans since the start of the plan that was put forth by Veterans Affairs. I thought this would be a great opportunity to go over some of the basics of performance management and how it relates to ending homelessness. I will use the experience of the VA to demonstrate some teachable points.

I am doing this out of the reaction to the post. Some wanted me to know how hard their community was trying. Some wanted me to know that it was not their fault. Some wanted me to know that their local VA is amazing. Some wanted to remind me that their community had functionally ended homelessness amongst veterans. Some wanted me to know that it was inappropriate to critique what is hard work. Some wanted me to know that there is no place where the life of a veteran would be valued more than a non-veteran. Some wanted to remind me that as a Canadian I have no place having any commentary on American service men and women and their homelessness post service. And I could go on. The point is, I am going to park all of that to focus on the performance management lessons.


What is the problem to be solved?

This seems to be missing from just about every document about the initiative of ending veteran homelessness, and therefore subject to interpretation over time. Was the goal to end veteran homelessness? If so, what did that mean? Did it just mean street homelessness? Did it mean all homelessness? Did it accept that some homelessness would be inevitable but that it would be short term and non-recurring? Did it mean that the support intervention would be linked to depth of need?


If you don’t precisely name the problem you will find it impossible to articulate a solution. And then, you will find yourself perpetually in the spin zone trying to make sense of what happened. I have previously provided commentary and critiques of functional zero and ending homelessness amongst veterans (for example, here) but they were only warranted because success is something that was defined and determined after work began. AND, the definitions of functional zero retroactively tried to define what the problem was in the first place.


Who is leading?

With homelessness amongst veterans it would be easiest to point to the VA Secretary and say it was their responsibility. And surely, leadership starts at the top rung of the ladder. But it would be completely inappropriate to think that the Secretary is responsible for leading initiatives in each and every jurisdiction.


If all leaders are not empowered and held responsible for implementation then no one is really empowered or responsible for implementation. If there are not repercussions for failure then there is a lack of impetus to find success.


And let us not confuse leadership with management.


To manage performance, it is necessary to have leadership to set the vision and management to put the vision into practice. Platitudes are not leadership.


What service delivery models are acceptable that we can measure against?

If all approaches are acceptable then there isn’t an actual delivery model and there is nothing measureable. One would like to think these are well informed and evaluated interventions that are considered, and that EVERY community receives the training necessary to understand and perform relative to the expected delivery models.


When a service delivery model has exceptional variation, it becomes really difficult – if not impossible – to measure and evaluate. It is hard to determine what happened because of luck and what happened because of design.


In performance management it is necessary to understand when there is variation and when there is stability in what is being done. Otherwise you end up trying to manage (and compare) the proverbial apples to oranges. If one community does a top notch job operating a Recovery-Oriented Housing Focused Intensive Case Management Program, and the other operates a Make-It-Up-From-Our-Best-Intentions-With-No-Training-And-Hope-For-The-Best it is impossible for there to be any fidelity to practice.


Which leads to another important aspect of Performance Management: what is the coaching plan?


Performance Management comes from a place of nurturing success with available assets and the creative resourcefulness that is necessary to help people perform to their fullest potential. If there isn’t a specific model of intervention, what is being coached to?


What are the indicators of success?

At the most rudimentary level, ALL programs that serve people that are homeless (regardless of population) have the same three questions:


  1. How long is it taking to get people out of homelessness?
  2. How many people are moving into housing?
  3. How many people are coming back to homelessness?


If you want, you can track these things by acuity level or age or size of family – or any number of secondary variables.


Another important question is: how many people remain homeless? If the goal is ZERO then this is critical, especially if there is a timeline attached to achieving the goal. What we don’t want is spin on what it means to remain homeless. So, for example with the veteran homelessness, it would have been best to know BEFORE it all began how they were going to treat Grant and Per Diem programs, as well as how they were going to treat service refusals. It can be disingenuous and excuse driven to spin what is in and out of scope to suit the outside understanding of success.


What difference will all of this make?

Another way of looking at this would be to call it the “outcome” part of performance management. If you want to do performance management will you need to name the changes you are trying to make before you start, and then evaluate whether you met those changes. You can also find through an evaluation that you had an impact on some things that were not even initially intended (good or bad).


The first major difference examined is usually related to what was trying to be achieved in the first place. Was that achieved? That is a bit harder with veterans because ending homelessness amongst veterans was not defined prior to the initiative of ending their homelessness.


But then there are those other things that may or may not have been intended from the get go. For example, maybe (I have no idea) there was an intention to start transforming Grant and Per Diem. Maybe (I have no idea) there was an intention to change how outreach is delivered to veterans. Maybe (again, no idea) there was a desire to help move VA medical centers towards a new approach of delivering service. If any of these were intended, it would be good to know so that they could be evaluated.


And then there is the matter of performance

It comes down to this: was the action performed?


Let me put it another way: was veteran homelessness ended?


For some veterans, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.


For many veterans, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.


Was there performance management? I leave that up to you to figure out.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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