Category Archives: policy wonk

Your Process is A Boundary

To have a thing you must create it. Sometimes that thing is more a process than a physical, tangible object, a process which ideally leads to an outcome benefiting those who partake. All processes require materials, pre-requisites, time, and work.

One of the things that the homelessness alleviation world learned, and I think it’s fair to say the hard way, is that the only people a process will serve are those who can tolerate the process. It’s been repeatedly found that the Housing First model of permanent supportive housing – provide housing prior to, and without immediate expectation of, other serviceshad better outcomes for less money than service-intensive transitional housing or shelter programs, where the consequence of non-compliance to treatment regimes were returns to homelessness. Clearly a program that returned a person to the same circumstances the program was supposed to end failed, but it was common for the client to be blamed for failure to conform instead of looking at a broad-picture rate of failure.

There is tension between what a program or process requires to function optimally and what it needs to do in order to serve everyone who may need or want to participate. It has struck me that, and not just in the homelessness alleviation industry, that you can have organization-focused or participant-focused policies. I have seen some processes built on the idea of ensuring fairness be so time intensive as to, perhaps inadvertently, exclude all but those with the luxury of inordinate leisure. Famously, the application for Social Security Disability is so complicated, that a different application process (SOAR) had to be created for its most vulnerable (and most eligible) applicants. Without SOAR, the paperwork and eligibility requirements made it unlikely that a disabled homeless person would receive them applying alone. The process was in contrast to the chaotic reality of chronically disabled people’s lives. If the emphasis of SSDI is “everyone who is in the program is vetted” instead of “everyone who needs this, gets it”, the complicated application process makes sense. Social workers can tell you a thousand examples of where processes to ensure benefits are received only by those we deem deserving can be in conflict with ensuring those deserving can recover from difficult circumstances. Strictness and burdensome requirements are the outcome when an institution values its process more than those it deigns to serve.

Sometimes that is a political result, as it is with governmental benefits, of a culture concerned more with worthiness and deservingness than need. Or a setting concerned with safety (for often good reasons) more than being 100% inclusive.

Rules that exist with the expectation that people change to conform to them are likely to only serve those who preexistingly fit the requirements. Alcoholics won’t become sober overnight because all the shelters in town expect that. Civic and faith-community participants can’t create extra hours in a day, week, or month if an effort requires more than what they personally have available. Life is the art of managing limitations.

Requirements exist to exclude. That is not inherently bad; often it is useful. If you are looking at a process, be it civic, faith-based, or social service, and wondering why you do not have more participants; if you’re looking at a population that needs something and is not accessing the services available; or if you are looking to create something new, examine your process not just as a thing that creates, but also a thing that excludes and limits.

Comments Off on Your Process is A Boundary

Filed under policy wonk