The dean of the University of Southern California School of Social Work is pushing the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection to consider performance-based contracting and to retain relationships with community-based service providers as part of its final recommendations for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
“We’re tracking inputs and processes, but we’re not monitoring the overall program,” said Marilyn Flynn, who is one of ten commissioners. “We know how it translates because when we look at how kids are functioning, it’s horrible. Not uniformly horrible, but it’s deeply troublesome for some groups of kids. Tracking outcomes for kids is not currently part of the contract.”
A performance-based approach would require the County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and other agencies to identify specific outcomes for children and families, and then to assess whether those outcomes were met during the contract period.
The push for performance-based contracting has existed for decades, though research about its effectiveness related to child welfare is still limited. Back in 2005, the Children’s Bureau funded the National Quality Improvement Center on the Privatization of Child Welfare Services to uncover evidence and best practices related to privatization and performance-based contracting.
Its goal was to help child welfare administrators use the evidence to improve decision-making related to these aspects of child welfare service delivery.
The center’s researchers conducted a national study of administrators’ contract management practices and determined that performance-based contracting requires that administrators understand and participate in what are called boundary-spanning activities, which involve coordination of efforts within and across departments and agencies
These activities are based on core principles such as ongoing collaboration, continuous communication, clearly defined and agreed-upon performance, integrated research, and data and case management systems. Though Los Angeles County already relies on private organizations for child welfare service delivery, it’s unclear whether it has the additional resources needed to undertake and manage a system of performance-based contracts.
“It would take two to three years to build the relationships,” Flynn said. “Every contract that really works has an evidence base for its program and it has some partnership at the provider level. Getting married takes a while to figure out – you have to see if you can agree to each other’s ideas about how things should be done and how you solve problems.”
The commission is slated to release its final recommendations to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on April 18. It is holding its final meeting on April 10.
Flynn has also noted concern at the decline in the number of providers with whom DCFS is renewing contracts. In a report to the commission in February, Flynn stated that as many as 50 percent of the community-based organizations that partnered with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in 2013 have not had their contracts renewed in 2014.
Historically, she said, these agencies provided prevention services, such as counseling, parenting classes and substance abuse treatment, to parents who were at risk of having their children removed.
During any given month, DCFS has between 418 and 462 active contracts, which accounts for about half its annual budget, according to Flynn’s report.
When asked to confirm these numbers, DCFS explained that some existing contractors that had a contract for five or more years will no longer be hired, but the agency did not offer a specific number.
Flynn also stated that DCFS has begun to move toward a reliance on larger firms to provide prevention services. She has recommended that the county carefully examine this shift, and perhaps consider a more collaborative and performance-based approach.
Flynn suggested that DCFS’ recent shedding of smaller contracts is a cost-saving measure in terms of fees paid to agencies and administrative time required by DCFS to oversee the contracts. Larger agencies are often more practiced in management and contract relationships.
Flynn suggested requiring larger agencies to subcontract with community-based organizations in those areas with the greatest need.
“People are best served in their own neighborhoods,” said Flynn. “Maybe we need to keep the large contract agencies, but there needs to be a special interest in involving neighborhood groups. This is coming at it from a development perspective, but maybe they need assistance in learning how to manage contracts.”
Christie Renick is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change