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Take a taxi ride from downtown Washington, DC to the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and you witness two sides of this great city. Your route takes you past magnificent monuments, thriving neighbourhoods and a number of new office developments. Unfortunately, you are also likely to pass many homeless people, a vivid reminder of the unaffordable and unavailable nature of the city’s real estate.
For Henry Hensley, director of HUD’s Office of Strategic Planning and Management (OSPM), the reality of the challenges surrounding housing and urban development are there, right in front of him, on a daily basis. “It certainly does charge you up to get down to some hard work,” he says ruefully, and unfortunately there are no quick fixes.
“The affordability issues within the bigger cities are very complex,” he continues. “Even when someone qualifies for one of our housing vouchers, they are often challenged in finding something affordable.”
Hensley joined HUD in 2008, and has led OSPM since 2013. This role, at the heart of the department, has placed him at the forefront of efforts to create sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. He and his team of 30 provide data on a variety of policy and operations topics, particularly those involving the agency’s priority goals such as preventing homelessness, preserving and expanding affordable rental housing, and reducing the impact of lead and other health hazards in the home.
“Our office is primarily responsible for performance and strategic planning,” he explains. “We lead the process to set the goals as each new administration comes in. We do stakeholder outreach and then pull together a plan with goals and objectives that we track over the next four years. There is a two-year refresh of that as part of the cycle, but primarily this is the agenda for each administration.”
He goes on to say that under the Trump administration the process has evolved somewhat. “On a quarterly basis, we are required to track the progress on priority goals. The current administration has moved to monthly reviews of each of our strategic objectives,” he says. “The new process is more milestone-driven so, hopefully, we can spur progress a little quicker on some of these things.”
The arrival of a new HUD Secretary – Ben Carson – and his team at the start of the year was clearly a big deal for Hensley and the department as a whole. Hensley, who served as one of the coordinators for the transition, says that he had a front row seat. He adds that the business of government keeps ticking over, even in tumultuous times like a presidential transition, and that this is even more acute for housing policy. “The principal difference between the parties when it comes to housing comes down to funding levels,” he explains.
“The requests from the Trump administration are obviously a lot lower but, for the most part and from a policy perspective, there are a striking amount of similarities. The same kind of things that Secretary Carson is trying to do around economic opportunity and mobility are similar to what his predecessor, Secretary Castro, was trying to do. Where my team can start to play a role is by introducing the data into the discussion. Both sides want to get to the same result, but they have different philosophies on how to get there.”
As something of a veteran of the department, Hensley has had the pleasure of observing how data has evolved to become a necessity, rather than something that was way down the list of priorities.
“When I started, we weren’t doing as much data work,” he concedes. “There was an annual report for which people would submit information, but there was little action throughout the year. That was the case until the passage of the 2010 Government Performance Results Modernization Act, which really set the stage for a deeper approach to data and performance management. It’s now so firmly established that if there isn’t enough data, people are reluctant to make a decision – which is exactly how it should be.”
Asked what has accelerated this evolution, he says that it is partly a generational thing but also reflects the fact that money is tighter now than in administrations past. “Back then you could afford to make a small mistake here and there, but now everyone is fighting for a smaller pot as the Administration works to make government more efficient and less of a burden on taxpayers,” he says. “Those who can best justify their spending requests are in a better place. Folks have started to learn that, and they have also learned that we can help give them the data they need to justify their proposals.”
Nevertheless, it’s not all good news. He admits that the department still struggles to get down to the micro-level, and identifying accurate information in real time has proved to be a substantial challenge. “I really want us to be able to look at how our performance stacks up against other countries,” he says. “The US should be a leader in housing policy and have a level of service that reflects that, but I don’t know how we stack up. At the moment, if I ask my analysts for benchmarks on homelessness in all the G8 nations, or the amount of housing units that are government-assisted, they come up empty.”
Partly this is down to privacy concerns and issues around data collection processes, but Hensley’s sense that the information he needs is out there somewhere but not consistently tracked or updated is palpable. One thing that will help, though, is the department’s long-awaited switch from paper to computer.
“We are successful when Secretary Carson is successful, but more personal to me is the extension of our grant system to a single platform that will let us pull data, do risk analysis, monitor grantees, and so on,” he says. “Believe it or not, in 2017 HUD still processes some grants payments on paper and FedExes documents between Fort Worth and DC. We’re not getting more people, so having that data analytic ability in a single system and taking it off paper is a big priority.”
This much-needed process is now underway and is primed for completion within five years. Whether or not DC’s housing challenges will be solved by then is another matter, but one thing’s for sure – it won’t be for the lack of trying by Hensley and his team.
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