Council once again fails to hold HSD accountable

Wednesday afternoon in the Human Services and Public Health Committee meeting, the City Council was asked by the Human Services Department (HSD) to lift restrictions on $125,000 set aside in this year’s city budget for a contract related to human service providers in the North Seattle area.  They asked no questions, and quickly passed it out of committee for final approval on Monday. This represents their general approach to oversight of HSD, and it is a big mistake.

HSD’s 2017 budget is just over $156 million. Almost $40 million of that is the Aging and Disability Services group, the only part of HSD that directly provides services to Seattle residents with its own staff. About $12.5 million passes through to the joint Seattle-King County Public Health system for a variety of services they provide. About $10 million is leadership and overhead. And nearly all of the rest — about $90 million — is grants to service providers in the community.

You would think that the City Council would demand accountability for how that money is being spent: who it’s going to, whether they did what they were contracted to do, what the outcomes were of those grants, and how the city’s providers compare to benchmarks from other cities. They ask for almost none of that, and HSD volunteers none. In fact, HSD Director Catherine Lester is masterful at maintaining her department’s opaqueness, and at avoiding answering questions when reporting to the Council.

Ironically, a year ago in his State of the City address Mayor Murray highlighted his new push for open data and accountability, along with the new Performance Seattle portal where the city’s residents could see performance dashboards for each department. Here’s the HSD dashboard for the end of the year:

For $150 million, we get seven numbers and little context for any of them; clicking through tells us why the goal is important and how it is measured, but not how they picked the goal and how it compares to past years. The youth employment goal is for all of the city government, not just HSD. The two domestic violence/sexual assault metrics relate to an important program, but one that only represents $6.1 million of HSD’s budget.  And even if they were all useful numbers (which they clearly are not), HSD has dozens of programs it funds; seven numbers barely scratches the surface of what they claim to be doing. And by the way, it’s nearly March, and HSD has yet to publish its dashboard metrics for 2017.

But never fear, because hidden deep in the 2017-2018 budget document we discover that HSD is a participant in a new Performance Measures pilot program that attempts to link specific budget line-items to performance goals — with some historic data along with future estimates. In the new program we get twelve numbers across five categories: homeless shelters, food and meals, youth employment, senior center services, and domestic violence programs. Here’s an example of the data provided for one of the categories:

This is clearly a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly comprehensive (nothing on public health, nothing on mental health or substance abuse treatment, programs for the disabled, gun violence, HIV, before/after school care, and many other programs), it’s buried deep in an 841-page document, and there is no clear commitment by HSD to provide ongoing updates throughout the year on whether the department is on track to meet its goals. This is a department that plans to spend $1.9 million on “data integrity” this year.

Lester delivers monthly written reports to Council member Sally Bagshaw in her role as chair of the City Council’s Human Services and Public Health Committee. HSD chooses not to post Lester’s monthly reports publicly, but through a Public Records Act request I obtained copies of all her reports from 2016. As an example, here’s the report for December 2016. The reports are next to useless; they are collections of what the business community calls “Bright Shiny Objects” that seem interesting while they distract you from the utter lack of information about what’s really going on. Lester’s reports include some happy milestones, and a long list of “important meetings.” No data, no budget updates, little discussion of ongoing issues, no intermediate reports on performance metrics. Just lots and lots of Bright Shiny Objects. All of her reports look like this. On the other hand, they are actually far more informative than the “Director’s Report” presentations she gives at Bagshaw’s committee meetings. Here’s the slides from her December 2016 report, and you can watch the video of the presentation here. Two slides with bullets, six slides with pictures of happy people, and no actual data. And watch and enjoy the way Lester manages to avoid answering questions directed to her. Her January 2017 report is just as comical (video here): same intro slide, the six happy pictures condensed onto a single slide, then two more slides of high level bullet-points. Still no data. (here’s the corresponding written report. Surprise! more Bright Shiny Objects!) To be fair, in Lester’s February report (scroll to the end) she did have one slide of numbers: a recap of the nearly-useless 2016 performance dashboard numbers (video here).

It was one of only three slides she presented, and one of the other two was — you guessed it — photos of happy people.

Which brings us back to Wednesday’s Council action to allow HSD to spend money. Two weeks ago, Lester came before Bagshaw’s committee to present the results of December’s North Seattle Summit of human-service stakeholders. This is an important effort because (as Council member Debora Juarez -D5! – will tell you) there is a general belief that despite 41% of the population of Seattle living north of the Ship Canal, the region is underserved by human service providers. The first-order problem, though, is that the gap between need and current service provider capacity has never been quantified. A big goal of the December summit was to share with the community a collection of data that would shed light on that gap.

Indulge me for a moment here while I tell a joke.  It’s late at night, and a police officer is walking his beat. He sees up ahead a man looking down at the sidewalk around him. The officer approaches him and asks if there is a problem. “I’ve dropped my wallet, and I’m searching for it,” the man replies. Wanting to be helpful, the officer asks where exactly he thinks he dropped it. The man points down the street, saying “About half a block down there.” Thoroughly confused, the policeman asks him why he’s looking here instead of where he dropped it. “Oh, the light is much better over here.”

Here are the data slides that were presented at the North Seattle Summit in December. Twenty two slides worth of visualizations of data about North Seattle. Unfortunately, this is what’s called “information visualization porn.” People love looking at these kinds of slides, because they are visually appealing and show you interesting data in novel ways, but with few useful insights. Very little of this data relates to the basic problem facing North Seattle: understanding what services are needed, how many people need them, and what the capacity of the current set of providers is. If they understood those things, they could do a real “gap analysis” and focus their energies on better serving the people who need their help.

It quickly becomes clear that HSD presented the data they could get, and not the data they needed; they were searching for data where the light was better.

Let’s examine some of their slides.

The first slide looks at poverty levels by neighborhood, roughly delineated into City Council districts. Unfortunately, it tells us where the poverty level is high, when what we REALLY want to know, from a service-delivery perspective, is how many people are living in poverty. A neighborhood could be a sparsely-populated area with high poverty, or a densely-populated are with low poverty.

In the second slide, suddenly we switch from Council districts to “Health Reporting Areas” with percentages of Seattle’s total population living in each (the raw numbers are stuck in the table).

This next slide was a 5-minute diversion for Council President Harrell as he tried to figure out what it meant for one third of 35% of Seattle to live in North Seattle. They should have just put in raw numbers.

Here again we have percentages of the population, when what we really what to know is how many people that represents so we can compare that to service provider capacity. This data is interesting, but it’s not insightful.

Same here. Also notice that now we’re using neither district councils nor HRAs.

Now we get a report of service requests for needle cleanup and homeless encampments, when what we really want to know is how many homeless people and people with substance abuse issues  there are in North Seattle. Knowing generally where they are is certainly useful, but this is of limited use in  a gap analysis.

And now we find out that 13% of all drug deaths in King County were in North Seattle. But we don’t know what percentage of King County’s population is in North Seattle, so we can’t tell if this is over-represented or under-represented. Every single one of those deaths is tragic, but this simply doesn’t help us to analyze the problem. Oh, and you might have noticed that we don’t even have neighborhoods outlined on this map.

OK, now we’re back to HRAs, with data on how the aging population is doing in North Seattle. But without any context, it’s impossible to know what this means. Are these numbers better than the general population, or other parts of the city? Especially the health numbers: one possible explanation is simply that the average age is higher in some neighborhoods. I would be shocked if — even with good health care — the percentage of people in good health didn’t decline with age.

Now this is more useful and to the point: how many people are not getting the healthcare they need. Except that the fine print says that the sample size is very small so we should “interpret with caution.”

This slide — despite the bizarre and distracting choice of graphics — has some useful data: it say that high school outcomes in North Seattle are better than in the city as a whole. Though racial disparities still exist.


The curious thing about the next two slides is that they compare the North Seattle set of schools against the Seattle average.  If there was equity on readiness, one would expect five of ten state-funded schools to be above average and five below. 4 were below average; again, North Seattle schools are beating the odds. Likewise, only 8 of 28 North Seattle elementary schools were below average.


The next two slides show the danger of old data. The first has unemployment rates from 2010. It’s impossible to say what this implies about unemployment in North Seattle today.

Likewise, the data in this food availability map is from 2006-2010– pre- and early- recession — with an overlay of summer meal program data from five years ago. This is meaningless.

Here’s domestic violence reports, and we’re told that 28% of the city’s reports were from North Seattle — which has 41% of the population. We clearly want to get that number to zero, but it isn’t an outsized problem in the area as a whole. What would be more useful, again, is to match up the neighborhood breakdown with corresponding populations so we could see if there is an issue with specific neighborhoods (like Northgate).


And now, we finally get to switch from looking at needs to looking at assets and capacity to serve the needs. Here’s a slide on “community assets.” Oops! It doesn’t include libraries, community centers, senior centers, family resource centers, and the city’s Customer Service Centers. On top of that, it gives us no sense of the capacity of those resources and how they compare to the population size.

Same here, on a map of outside services that receive funding from the city: the dots don’t tell us anything about the capacity of those service providers, or the areas that they are capable of serving.

We leave this long presentation intrigued but not much smarter than we entered: some of the data can’t be trusted, some is the wrong data, a lot is difficult to interpret, and it’s nearly impossible to join data sets together. We’re certainly no closer to being able to do a real gap analysis for North Seattle.

The other inescapable conclusion: HSD is not only terrible at data collection, analysis and presentation, they don’t even know what questions to ask to help them improve their delivery of services. There was no message here, and certainly no big insights; they presented the data they could get without regard for whether it was useful.

The feedback from the summit participants, many of whom were service providers in the area, focused on how the city can help them: increasing their capacity, helping them learn how to work with data, and building connections between agencies.

Based on that, HSD recommended using $125,000 to contract with University Family YMCA to organize the next “Connections” conference with the North Seattle stakeholders and to help to build connections between providers. The main mechanism for building those connections will be to sub-contract to an outside vendor to build a new web site to host data that the YMCA collects from providers, from the state 211 system, and from 501 Commons on demographics and service providers in North Seattle. Except that by the time the site is launched at the end of 2017, the data will be out of date, and there is no provision in the contract to continue updating the web site after it’s launched. We will be no closer to having a real “gap analysis” between the needs of the residents of North Seattle and the capacity of service providers to meet those needs.  And HSD will continue its near-perfect record of poor execution on anything data-related.

Speaking of which: last October, when the Mayor launched the “Bridging the Gap” interim plan for addressing the homelessness crisis, he noted “the City is currently conducting a needs assessment survey of people living unsheltered that will be completed in November.” HSD is the department doing the survey, and it still hasn’t been released.

Also: according to the state auditor, HSD also has trouble keeping their books. The auditor found issues in both 2014 and 2015.

As one of the largest departments in the city, and one with a $156 million budget, this is a travesty. We can see in HSD’s budget that it spends about $10 million annually on “leadership and administration” overhead and another $3.6 million on overhead for the Aging and Disability Services group and another $3.1 million on overhead for managing their federal Community Block Development Grant funding. And don’t forget that $90 million of their budget — about 58% — is sent right back out the door as grants to other organizations that have their own overhead expenses. That’s a lot of overhead for an organization, especially for one that can’t hit deadlines and provides so little transparency.

On Tuesday, in his State of the City Address Mayor Murray stated that he wants to double the city’s annual spend on addressing homelessness:

I have asked local entrepreneur and civic activist Nick Hanauer and Daniel Malone, the Executive Director of Downtown Emergency Services Center, along with Councilmembers Juarez and Bagshaw, to lead an advisory group that sends me a funding package within 14 days that achieves this goal.

This package would raise an additional 55 million dollars per year, paid for by an increase in the commercial and residential property tax – around 13 dollars per month for the median household.

Consistent with the best-practices outlined in Pathways Home, this would allow us to invest in mental health treatment, in addiction treatment and in getting more people into housing and off the streets.

Most of that $55 million would go into HSD’s budget.

HSD has not demonstrated that it is capable of responsibly accounting for their budget or their performance. The City Council and the voters of Seattle should loudly oppose giving any more money to HSD until it mends its ways. HSD talks a good game about its intent this year to change its contracting procedures to force service providers to cough up data so the department can track their performance, but without a similar commitment from the department itself to become more transparent, it will make no difference: we still won’t know how that $156 million is being spent and whether it’s having the desired impact.

HSD has 325 employees, and hundreds more under contract through service providers across the city. They are great people with huge hearts, working super hard for really lousy pay because they care deeply about helping people in their time of need. I am not blaming them. The responsibility for HSD’s faults lies squarely with the department’s leadership, who have shown time and again a resistance to transparency and to providing useful, quantitative  information about what HSD is doing, how it’s spending its budget, and what results it’s getting. It lies with the Mayor for not following through on his commitment last year to open data, performance-driven benchmarks, and data-driven accountability. And the City Council shares the blame, as it has not provided adequate oversight for a huge department with a massive budget.

HSD doesn’t need to look far for good models for how to do this right. For all their faults, SDOT, SPU, and SPD are skilled at gathering, analyzing and presenting data, and they could teach Catherine Lester much.

It’s time for the City Council to either demand that Lester implement real transparency and accountability in her department, or tell the Mayor to replace her with someone who can and will. And in the meantime, they should refuse to authorize any additional funding for HSD until it can truly be accounted for.


  1. You go, man! Blistering! I love to see opaque bureaucrats get it in the chops!

  2. This piece is a little too data-centric, even for Seattle, but it’s good to see that you get it.

    That HSD needs to be more transparent I take as given. My colleagues and I recently approached them about why they don’t follow their own rules when it comes to auditing their service provider contractors. Their answer: “We don’t have to answer your questions.” (!) I wrote this up and sent it to the State Auditor’s office. They told me they’re bumping up the level of scrutiny on HSD for their next audit. That’s the least they can do.

    HSD seems to be actively protecting sketchy providers like SHARE, LIHI, and Catholic Community Services, but absent a transparent audit and possibly a court case, it’s difficult to prove that. This is precisely how corruption works, how it thrives…

    1. Data-centric is my thing – I’m not going to apologize for that. 🙂

  3. Great article, thank you for putting this together! I have one constructive criticism. It appears that you make the same error you accuse HSD of making when you discuss overhead. You make the claim that HSD has a lot of overhead, but don’t give us a reference point. Is HSD’s overhead higher or lower than other public departments in Seattle or other cities?

    Again, thank you for delving into this!

    1. Thanks for the question. I was trying to shy away from saying whether it’s too high or too low for two reasons. The first is that because HSD is a hybrid organization: Aging and Disability Services directly delivers services using HSD staff, but most of the rest of the organization is grant-making. You can roughly compare the direct-service group to other nonprofit service providers, in which case anything under 15% overhead is acceptable. The rest of the org you could sort of compare to a nonprofit foundation that just hands out grants, and there you would expect the overhead to be much less — though exactly how much depends on how much in-house expertise you need in order to choose grant recipients wisely. But then there’s the overhead for being a government agency, Public Records Act compliance, etc. So it’s all very complicated. It would be very difficult to make a judgement as to whether the overhead at HSD’s level is too high, but they are certainly not a lean operation. Which brings me to the second reason: the point I was simply trying to make was that HSD isn’t, in fact, a lean organization and with their healthy overhead they have no excuse for not delivering on performance metrics, accountability, and transparency.

  4. I’ve worked for HSD for years. This article is correct. Keep digging because you’re only at the beginning of the rabbit hole. It’s much deeper.

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