Successful Partnerships through Aligned Missions and Empathetic Relationships

The core of USICH’s mission is creating effective partnerships. My thinking about what is possible in partnerships is shaped by the work I did prior to coming to Washington. Before joining USICH, I worked in a Midwestern metropolitan county human services agency with a broad mandate that included child welfare, behavioral health and other social services, economic assistance programs, juvenile justice, public health, and the programs and policy efforts I led on homelessness and housing. Having this broad spectrum of services under shared leadership created lots of opportunity for partnership. We benefitted in particular from leadership in our child welfare department that was especially attuned to the needs of youth and families in the child welfare system for whom housing was a critical ingredient for stability.

Our approach was to make our agency’s housing resources, in partnership with our local public housing agencies, available as needed on a case-by-case basis to the families and youth that our child welfare system served. These resources included anything from assistance with housing searches, negotiation with landlords, flexible funding to cover things like security deposits, and a limited supply of rental assistance. To do this, we had to braid together state, local, and Federal dollars around each individual youth or family.

But more importantly, we had to partner together – to establish working relationships and trust that would allow meaningful collaboration across units of our system.

Partnerships like this can be messy. In the case of services for youth, sometimes our housing case managers felt like the dumping ground for failures of other parts of our system to prevent homelessness. Our child welfare staff members were sometimes frustrated when the key resource for a young person or family they served–often, a rent subsidy and ongoing support – was not available. At our worst, this resulted in finger pointing and accusations that someone just “didn’t get it.”

But at our best, we found that sweet spot where we understood together how each discipline could complement the other around every individual family and young person. We learned that nobody had all the resources we wished we had, and so we all had to make hard, ethical choices about where those resources would be directed.

We were also at our best when we were operating as a larger team instead of clashing bureaucracies. We had to ask ourselves, for example, what did it mean for the child welfare staff to not have to become housing experts, but to enlist the technical knowledge, landlord relationships, and negotiating skills of our housing team? When a young person was about to lose a rent subsidy because of repeated lease violations, what did it mean that their housing and child welfare supports were aligned in helping to solve the problem? In a scaled up way, I think coordinated assessment could work like this in communities across the country.

Like most partnerships, one of the most critical ingredients is empathy. We have to be able to understand one another's incentives and find the common ground that aligns our work together. We shouldn’t just invite our partners to our meetings. (Who has time to attend someone else’s meetings?) We need to make “my” meetings “our” meetings. To do so, we have to work to understand what is important to our partners and create a space for honest dialogue and mutual understanding about where our efforts should support one another. We have to show that this is not only a good use of their time, but that we are focused on helping our partners succeed at their mission. And that, of course, is how together we succeed at our mission.