Social Service, Community Mental Health and Homeless Service Provider Collaboration for Effective Case Management

This blog is part of the “You asked for it” series. In December, on the OrgCode FaceBook page I asked people want blogs they wanted to see. These blogs are a direct response to the most popular suggestions. This one goes out to Lauren Frederick. She asked for a blog about “Promoting efficient collaboration between social service agencies, community mental health, & homeless service providers for effective housing case management”

The last time I blogged about collaboration was the summer of 2013. I stay convinced that the five steps for effective collaboration that I outlined in that blog remain true:

  1. Agree on how you will communicate with each other
  2. Ensure creative conflict
  3. Be deliberate and thoughtful in figuring out with whom you are collaborating
  4. Have a defined process
  5. Make certain there is accountability

And I also remain convinced that any talk of collaboration only makes sense if we are all on the same page about what is meant by collaboration. To that end, you can read this old blog gem from March 2012. One of the quotes in that blog that rings true to me whenever I go about discussing collaboration is from Thomas Stallkamp, who has had a rather successful career in business and now leads a group calledCollaborative Management, who remarked, “The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.”

That said, many people who work in this industry talk a good game about collaboration because we think it is the answer. It isn’t always. Collaboration only works when there is a genuine commitment to labor together (which, by the way, is the origins of the word). Collaboration is not partnership. It is not mutual aid. It is working together.

How do you get groups to work together?

First of all, they have to consent to do so and commit to do so. In a number of communities the way to ensure this will actually occur is a signed charter or memoranda with signatures from the parties that agree to collaborate.

Groups really only work well together when they have mutual interest. To that end, if a group wants collaboration so that, say, a behavioral health service will assist a participant in your program, that isn’t mutual interest. That is an interest in you having someone do the job that they are mandated to do. Mutual interest would be if the behavioral health service provider had something they wanted you to labor on with them.

Sometimes that we think having shared clients on caseloads creates an environment where collaboration will definitely occur. Nope. It only works if the sum of the various parties working together exceeds the impact of any one party working alone.

Let’s us assume that a group (comprised of three agencies: social services, a homeless service provider, and community mental health) agrees to collaborate. It will not all go smoothly, and it shouldn’t. We want there to be different perspectives and opinions on what should occur, in which way, and why. And let us not forget that the participant should have an active voice as well. Sometimes the best way to promote collaboration is to let prospective parties participating in the collaboration to know that you don’t expect everyone to agree.

Identifying the objectives of having the parties collaborate with each other is necessary for it to be effective and efficient. If you want people to come together and labor together without identifying the objectives, expect it to all fall apart, quickly and with considerable frustration. Why? Because chances are different parties had different objectives to achieve through the collaboration.

You would be hard-pressed to find any of these groups (social services, homeless service providers, or community mental health providers) with more staff, money or time than they know what to do with. Because everyone is overtaxed, suggesting one more meeting or get together is probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. “Many hands making light work” only succeeds if people feel that there is equal effort in participation. You also need to let people know how you plan on communicating about the work if they do agree to collaborate – Case conferences? Phone contact? All visiting participants at the same time? Emails? Skype chats?

Before you actually begin the collaboration, I would also make sure that people know how the group will have mutual accountability. That way if someone is not carrying their load or laboring in the way that was agreed to, there is recourse. If you don’t have this, people can start skipping out and avoiding participation.

How I might go about doing collaboration for the purposes of ending homelessness

  1. Signed Memorandum of Understanding between senior managers in all three sectors of service.
  2. One pager writing out the objectives of the collaboration signed by the frontline staff involved in all three parties.
  3. Outline the steps that will be taken if there is operational conflict.
  4. Identify the first five participants to collaborate on through discussion of all three parties.
  5. Weekly email communication on tactical and operational division of labor across all three parties with specific clients.
  6. Meet the second Friday of the month to discuss broader shared work strategically and actively create debate on approach, technique, and strategies for specific participants.
  7. Summarize results of collaboration to Senior Managers of all three parties on a quarterly basis.
  8. Expand to additional participants (incrementally) after at least two consecutive quarters of effective collaboration, with improved client outcomes.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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