Laura Saintey is the Project Manager of Training for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. She works to invest federal resources into creating affordable housing opportunities that help Texas communities thrive. With services like the community services block grant program (CSBG), weatherization assistance, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and a variety of trainings, she helps serve thousands of people across Texas. Laura’s department uses the ROMA Community Action Plan (CAP) Toolbox to help community action agencies assess and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of resource allocation for housing programs.
Thank you for talking with us Laura. Can you tell us about the ROMA CAP Toolbox you use at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs?
ROMA stands for Results-Oriented Management and Accountability. It basically has two components to it – 1) an overall management system and 2) an accountability system. We use Community Commons to help with the accountability part. It’s data tracking, collection and analysis. The management part is more how you identify the needs in your community that need to be addressed. How are you going to address them: directly, indirectly or through advocacy? What sort of resources do you have to meet those needs? What programs or partnerships do you need to meet those needs? We’ve created several production tools to help [our agencies] see how many households they need to serve in order to fully expend [their money] within the program year.
We use a Poverty Population Tool, which we created. That’s how we train the agencies to view their area. We’re a big state, so we have agencies of all sizes. We have them populate [in the tool] the number of households in poverty to determine how much money needs to be expended to equitably serve the population. Using average expenditures per household, we look to see how many households [our agencies] need to serve in each of those counties. Then we ask questions like: where do you need to have your offices? Where you can just do outreach? Where do you have to have multiple offices? Where do you need staff?
We can actually go into [each agency’s] Current Performance Report and look at how many households they served in each of those counties, whether or not they are over serving or underserving them, and how to adjust for this.
And have these tools been in play long enough that you’ve seen them make a measurable difference?
We have seen a difference in the people who have been trained on the tools and who actually use them. Especially through the stages of the ROMA cycle:
The first stage is assessment. [Agencies] have to assess their community needs every 3 years. They should be assessing their clients’ satisfaction, changes in their community, and how they are performing on what they set out. So for assessment, we’ve come up with dashboards that they can use. For CSBG, we have what we call National Performance Indicators and when [agencies] turn in their Community Action Plan to us, they have to indicate what performance indicators they will be addressing and reporting on based on the needs identified, and populate them into a dashboard. They use data to ask questions, make good decisions, and report to their board at every board meeting their performance, goals and outcomes.
Second stage is planning. When [agencies] get into planning they have to look at the needs that they found, the outcomes they want to achieve, and based on those, determine the resources that are needed and how should they be used. That’s where the poverty population tools come in. They turn those in with their budget and we review it.
At that point, they do the next phase of ROMA which is called implementation. This is when their staff gets to work. They go about serving clients, gathering data and reporting. During implementing parts of our CAP Plan, they reiterate their goals and identify the steps that need to be implemented and implement them.
From there, [agencies] have to do an achievement of results, which is the next phase. That’s actually their reporting; making sure that the reports are correct, everything is entered correctly, and then they evaluate this part of the cycle. A lot of the tools that we created can be used for implementation and achievement of results, like using data to determine how to allocate resources efficiently and more equitably serve the households in need.
So the data you see on Community Commons in the Community Needs Assessment, how do they play a role in the tools you use?
We use it very differently depending on the training. Mostly, I pull up a handful of things I see when I look through the Community Needs Assessment results that would indicate [an agency’s] potential top 5 needs. I love this tool. I love the pie charts. I love the bar graphs. I love maps. I’m a visual person. So when we get to the evaluation cycle of ROMA, I have [the agencies] look at all the tools, their original plans, their updated needs, if there have been any changes, and use all that information to re-plan for the next year.
This whole ROMA process that you went through, it seems so essential to community work. I’m wondering, what do agencies use if they don’t use this? How do they evaluate and measure to inform long-term planning?
Community Commons has helped a lot with at least the quantitative data. But what community agencies have done in the past is they’ve surveyed their clients, their staff and their board. They’d make a plan and just recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done and get busy trying to finish it all. And this makes it more difficult for utility assistants, for example, to help people out of poverty because they feel like they don’t have the time. We try to break them out of that. We’re seeing some good changes, really solid plans based upon data.
Sounds like it has improved efficiency for your team as well.
I’ve got a great team. We have discussions regarding agencies that are struggling. We analyze the problem, and then we start finding and using data in that process. When Community Commons came out, we started booking out those reports. We were surprised at how easy to use the tool is. I can run a report in 2 minutes. I get everything I need right here. The more we looked at Community Commons, the Needs Assessment, the more we were seeing connections. I’ve actually shown that website and the data to some boards for agencies, and said, “Do you know what your community looks like?” I’m showing this site to a board member who’s also a county judge and she looked at me and said, “I need that site. I need that for talking to my constituents. I need that for a meeting I’m going to next week.”
So it’s been really interesting. And then my deputy director, I was showing it to her and she said, “I need that when I go over across the street to the legislation, because that’s got great data for me.” You start to look at the data and you start to see the picture. Every time I look at it I’ll see something different, or I’ll see more.