Shifting the Poverty Paradigm: Moving to Results that Matter in Washington State

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” - Albert Einstein

Washington State (WA) Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) Secretary Ross Hunter opened with the quote above at the 2019 National TANF State Directors’ Meeting, Helping Families to Overcome: Partnering to Build a Stronger Society on September 18, in a session that was live streamed and recorded. Along with Ballmer Group’s Washington Executive Director Andi Smith and Third Sector CEO Caroline Whistler, Secretary Hunter presented on DCYF’s agency-wide journey to transition ~$1 billion across over 1000 social service contracts to be performance-based, using a data-informed, outcomes-focused approach to funding service provision that improves the lives of children and families across Washington state. Underscoring the importance of Washington’s leadership in operationalizing an outcomes approach that puts results for families first, the Stanford Social Innovation Review also recently profiled DCYF’s nationwide leadership in the broader outcomes movement.

To ensure services are supportive of nine priority outcome goals for children, youth, and families, DCYF is utilizing performance-based contracting (PBC) as a tool to translate the House Bill 1661 legislative mandate of funding outcomes into operationalized, on-the-ground service improvements that work for and serve families. Third Sector is one of several key partners supporting this work, and Ballmer Group is providing philanthropic support for Third Sector to build DCYF staff capacity to fund and partner with providers to achieve better outcomes for families. The three speakers used DCYF’s PBC work as an example of shifting paradigms and building a culture of delivering family outcomes that may be replicable for TANF state administrators across the country.

In his TANF State Directors’ Meeting presentation, Secretary Hunter shared a case study based on some of DCYF’s Home Visiting contracts to show the new agency’s approach to PBC, including:

  • Tying financial incentives to outcomes, specifically for under-resourced populations
  • Engaging service providers in data analysis to inform decisions on outcomes and incentives
  • Aligning performance requirements and continuous improvement activities with contract incentives to support improved service quality

As a result, providers are empowered through PBC to focus increasingly on providing high-quality services that truly meet the needs of parents and children. Utilizing PBC as a mechanism to continue to learn, iterate, and improve each contract can also inform a coordinated and lasting agency-wide change. Secretary Ross spoke of the ways each contract group that ties resources to outcomes and real-time program changes contributes to the path to lasting, meaningful, and coordinated change for all families and children in the state.

Philanthropic capital was a key catalyst to enable DCYF to take risks and experiment with the on-the-grounds methods to change how contracts are funded and managed, to drive increased impact for families. In particular, Andi from Ballmer Group sees the funding of DCYF as a long-term relationship and partnership, acknowledging that “these big complex problems do not get solved over a twelve-month period.” Instead, when partnering with a government entity like DCYF, philanthropy can be an actively engaged thought partner over a longer period of time, utilizing the flexibility in their capital to enable bigger systems-level change beyond funding individual programs.

DCYF is creating a new structure and culture for building, measuring, and learning what works best for families, and integrating this into how we do business as an agency. As philanthropic partner Andi Smith envisions, “[DCYF is] going to fundamentally change the way that we contract, and by definition, we are going to fundamentally improve outcomes for children and families - and we’re going to do it with the $1 billion we already have.” The partnership of DCYF, Third Sector, and Ballmer Group is deploying performance-based contracting as a vehicle to focus on, incentivize, and continue improving on child and family outcomes throughout Washington. Ultimately, the end goal is to understand and pay for what works to move the needle on the cycle of poverty for all families in the state.

This blog originally appeared on the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families website. The original blog can be viewed here.