City of Seattle Reorients Homeless Services Toward Outcomes with Results-Driven Contracting

In 2015, the Mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, declared a state of emergency. The city had spent years trying to address the challenge of homelessness – it had increased its budget, signed and renewed countless contracts with skilled and dedicated service providers, and invested in contracts that tackled the problem from many different angles.

Despite Seattle’s rising investments – $50 million in 2016 – its homeless population also continued increasing at around 13% per year from 2011 to 2016. The government’s investment and the efforts of its 60 enlisted service providers weren’t achieving the long-term results they sought.

So when Mayor Murray established the city’s Office of Policy and Innovation, reducing homelessness was one of its top priorities. With support from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative and the Harvard Government Performance Lab, they brought a new approach to the old challenge. Instead of simply spending more money on the problem, they decided to change how they spent existing funds. The Office of Policy and Innovation worked with the Human Services Department (HSD) to restructure their procurement and contracting process. Ultimately, HSD adopted an approach that cut bureaucratic red tape that had previously limited service providers in responding to the problem. They developed better practices of tracking data and tied contracts to genuine progress on outcomes-based metrics. “Homelessness is a mayoral priority, as is performance and good government,” said Jason Johnson, Deputy Director of Seattle HSD.  “This project checked three major priority boxes.”

Getting there wasn’t easy. Such a big shift was initially met with skepticism and resistance from the planners, contract managers and organizations used to operating under the old system. However, through a nine-month planning process, they showed their teams and partners how reorienting around measuring outcomes could prove beneficial to them and the clients they serve. 

When it came to measurement, HSD realized it had tons of data, but most of it measured number of “widgets” or volume of services rather than actual results, and much of it was incomplete. Many service providers failed to input information because they didn’t have the resources to invest in a team member dedicated to understanding and managing the data tracking system. The process was redundant as well, requiring organizations to submit the same information to multiple systems.

Organizations also failed to make data a priority because they didn’t understand how – or even if – this data was useful to city. This created a self-fulfilling prophecy as the city would be unable to use the incomplete data. The result was a cycle that made measurement a low priority. HSD took two important steps. First, they provided technical assistance and training to make sure both the providers and their own staff were prepared for a system where data would drive funding decisions. Second, they sat down with service providers to establish a few targeted measurements that both parties would find useful in orienting their work toward outcomes.

During their planning process, HSD noticed another issue inhibiting better outcomes: many different contracts with little flexibility. For example, if an organization with separate contracts for providing food and providing shelter was running out of funding for the shelter contract, it may be limited to feeding someone who really needs a place to stay. Contracts with this siloed approach can limit providers to offering services based on which contracts still have funding left rather than what individuals truly need.  

Additionally, the number of staff required to manage these siloed contracts was staggering.  For example, one service provider had 19 contracts with the city to fight homelessness and managing those 19 contracts took three people from the provider and four people from the city – totaling seven people managing 19 contracts with one goal.

In light of this discovery, HSD worked to develop and consolidate the many contracts held by these larger providers, empowering them to focus on serving clients based on what they need, and what will lead to the best outcome, rather than what outputs are covered by a contract. HSD also eliminated unnecessary contract management work to allow more staff time devoted to client services and data collection and management.

Seattle’s process is ongoing, but its partners are already excited by the shift and the way it has allowed everyone to operate with more flexibility and efficiency and truly focus on reducing homelessness.

Earlier this summer the process came to full fruition as the city announced it was opening $30 million in homeless service contracts to a competitive bidding process. These new contracts require providers to be accountable to outcomes and tie payment and continuation of the contract to measurements and results. “We’re taking this from a pilot and making it the new normal across the entire homeless portfolio of investments,” Johnson explained. “It’s our intention to get all homeless investments into a results-based framework.”


  • Hanna Azemati and Christina Grover-Roybal, “Shaking up the Routine: How Seattle is Implementing Results-Driven Contracting Practices to Improve Outcomes for People Experiencing Homelessness” Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab, September 2016,
  • Erica C. Barnett, “Seattle Opens $30 Million in Homeless Service Contracts for Bidding, Wants More Accountability,” Seattle Magazine, June 28, 2017,
  • Andy Feldman, “How Seattle used results-driven contracting to improve homeless services: An interview with Jason Johnson, Deputy Director, Human Services Department, City of Seattle,” GovInnovator Podcast Episode #144, May 10, 2017 
  • Jason Johnson (Deputy Director, Human Services Department, City of Seattle) interview with author, April 2017