Trans–par–en-cy: an honest way of doing things that allows other people to know exactly what you are doing. At least that’s how MacMillan Dictionary defines it. But, to what extent do we dare use the word “transparent,” when it comes to practice, as in transparent practice? Perhaps not as much as we should, as revealed by the results of a recent review of community-based housing efforts serving Veteran families within the HUD Continuums of Care.
The more important question underlying the reported lack of community-based transparency among housing providers might be, “How do we build greater transparency into provider practices operating in communities to better serve Veteran families?”
Recently, Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Long Island Continuum of Care (COC) and VA Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grants participating in IVMF’s VA SSVF Community of Practice (CoP), completed the design and implementation of a first-of-its-kind, transparent, or ”open” Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) architecture to better support community-based practitioners operating on Long Island, N.Y.
Most community-based housing providers know HMIS as a regional database used to simply collect data about persons who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, and the services provided to them. But, for the SSVF grants operating on Long Island, HMIS is the basis of transparency, supporting data-sharing between SSVF providers operating in the same continuum of care.
To understand this dynamic better, think of these information architectures as a series of traffic patterns with information traveling down many “streets.” Imagine the providers as cars, traveling down a series of one-way streets, inputting data – in this case, information about persons who are homeless. Within this traffic pattern, the streets don’t intersect so the providers never cross paths. Now, picture the same “traffic pattern” as a series of traffic circles, in which data is collected by the providers in the circle and also shared freely among- them, so that they can see one another’s information at all times. This is what open or transparent information architectures look like to VA SSVF providers operating on Long Island.
Equally important, the Long Island COC has used the transparency stemming from that open information architecture as a way to cut back on the risk associated with “closed” HMIS architectures. Every day, well-intentioned organizations serving in the same COC are unable to share data among themselves, because they operate on a closed platform. As some of New England’s SSVF providers have found, this practice does not lend itself to true collaboration within the COC.
In response to practitioners’ concerns that multiple SSVF providers in the same continuum could potentially be serving the same Veteran families, IVMF looked within its community of practice for potential solutions to create and embed transparency in the HMIS architecture, with the goal being to enable the four Long Island VA SSVF grantees to ”see” one another’s clients. Our goal at Syracuse was to ensure that more than one provider was not simultaneously serving the same Veteran family through their VA SSVF resources, to remain a good steward of VA’s investment.
The University of Vermont’s Translational Sciences Department – also a VA SSVF provider – supplied the needed insight to create a transparent HMIS architecture for its peer SSVF organizations on Long Island. In support of their statewide SSVF grant serving Vermont and eastern upstate New York, the university administers its own system and employs a specialist who – by establishing a series of memoranda of agreement and common protocols – developed an open HMIS architecture for the university and for the state.
Through our institute’s community of practice at Syracuse, the university’s open information architecture was shared with other SSVF providers operating in the same continuum of care. Our institute regularly convenes its community members to increase the performance and quality of SSVF services. During a recent staff development seminar, Long Island’s providers requested IVMF’s assistance with developing a similar arrangement. From there, the effort began to bring greater organizational transparency within the Long Island continuum of care.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that its regions establish and use an HMIS – to receive HUD funding, but not that these regions take steps to ensure the transparency of data to its providers. The Long Island HMIS has operated since 2002, and collects data from more than 40 providers and 200 housing and services programs on Long Island. Historically, the Long Island region has not shared data between providers in the HMIS; each provider only had access to its own populated data. VA’s award of SSVF funding to four different Long Island providers presented an opportunity to maximize collaboration between SSVF grantees and streamline program operations to better serve Veteran families.
Recognizing the value in sharing data, the Long Island COC challenged its four SSVF providers to share data among themselves in HMIS, to ensure that VA’s resources would be distributed more efficiently; today, all four providers use HMIS to find out whether a potential client has already been approached or assisted by other providers. Like cars sharing space in a roundabout, the sharing of information by providers allows other people to know exactly what they’re doing.
I can’t think of a better way to avoid a potential “collision.”
HUD, HHS and VA released the new 2014 HMIS Data Dictionary and Manual that go into effect on Oct. 1. The new standards are intended to simplify how providers satisfy reporting requirements and how data is organized and shared. It is a significant step toward data sharing across Federal programs. Find the details here.
The IVMF SSVF Community of Practice is supported by a number of products, including ongoing professional development and staff training, leader engagement, accreditation mentoring, and recognition of class-leading and innovative SSVF practices. By design, the CoP is organized and resourced to complement VA’s technical assistance and oversight efforts and focusits activities within communities by being responsive to the requirements of SSVF grantees.
Retired Col. Jim McDonough, is senior director of community engagement and innovation, Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on how to participate in IVMF’s VA SSVF Community of Practice, please contact Christine Tarnowski, Community Engagement Policy and Program Manager, at email@example.com.