Public Administration in Practice: Seeking Solutions to Domestic Violence in Multnomah County

When most people hear the word audit, the first things that come to mind are the Internal Revenue Service and financial audits. Performance auditing is much more than that. We identify methods for testing the impact of problem practices and recommend solutions to management. We consider financial impact, but we also evaluate operations that may not be within the intent of the law or the program goals. Performance auditors have a broad appreciation for government policies and procedure, management theory as it applies to government practices, and the impact of political and social pressures on management decisions.

As the Public Safety Performance Auditor for Multnomah County, I evaluate the programs, services, and functions in criminal justice and public safety departments. My recently released audit report, Multnomah County Domestic Violence System: More Effective Collaboration will Enhance System Capacity, demonstrates one model of thinking broadly about the work of government functions that work across programs and jurisdictions.

Evaluating the Domestic Violence System: More than just the numbers
Woman and childPublic safety problems, such as the issue of domestic violence, tend to be messy and stretch across many departments and services with no clear definition of exactly how the problems should be addressed by performance auditors. However, protecting public safety is a fundamental role of government. As such, it is the responsibility of government performance auditors to find ways to assess and make recommendations for improvement of public safety functions intended to improve community safety. The issue of domestic violence illustrates both why government should be involved and also why it is difficult to evaluate whether that involvement is effective.

Domestic violence is a public safety concern that harms victims and their families in devastating ways and also hurts the larger community. Approximately 28,000 women in Multnomah County are physically abused by an intimate partner ever year and 21,000 children are exposed to domestic violence. In 2009, domestic violence programs in Multnomah County received more than 34,000 calls for services. Arrests for domestic violence offenses resulted in 8,440 jail bookings. Almost 1,400 victims and their children received emergency shelter for nearly 33,800 nights in shelter. Across Oregon, the cost of domestic violence exceeds $50 million each year, nearly $35 million of which is for direct medical and mental health care services.

No one individual or organization can solve the problem of domestic violence. The overlapping criminal justice and social service systems create an inter-connected web of operations whose outcomes seem to defy meaningful measurement and traditional performance auditing practices. In Multnomah County, almost 40 different government and non-profit agencies work together to protect victims in crisis and hold perpetrators accountable for their behavior.

Practicing Public Administration in Government and Nonprofit Systems
To conduct this audit, I used many of the skills I developed during my studies in public administration. I reviewed the governing laws, policies and procedures to identify standards regarding how the domestic violence system is supposed to be functioning. I researched organizational collaboration scholars to find best practices. Most importantly, I conducted extensive interviews to find out what the people who work in the system think is working well and what they believe gets in the way of success. Once I understood what was going on and the problems affecting the domestic violence system, I was able to make recommendations about what to do to make things better.

I found two major problems. First, even though the people working in the domestic violence system are committed to coordinating their efforts, there are barriers to full collaboration. They compete with each other of funds, causing tension between groups. They also have trouble coming to agreement about how to solve problems. Further, not all potential community partners and resources are engaged in addressing domestic violence, in part, due to the barriers to collaboration.

Second, a holistic response to domestic violence requires crisis intervention, prevention, and outreach. Right now, almost all efforts are designed to respond to crisis. However, the only way to reduce the need for crisis intervention over time is to support more effective collaboration to build successful prevention and outreach efforts. Just doing what the system is already doing more effectively or giving it more money will never achieve the goal of ending domestic violence.

Collaboration Key to Successful System Management
I discovered that the biggest problem is that, since the system partners work together extensively to provide services that are coordinated and funded collaboratively, they assume that they are collaborating successfully. Effective collaboration involves exchanging information, altering activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit to achieve a common purpose. Most often, however, partners in the domestic violence system are only reaching the level of working cooperatively or coordinating services without ever truly building the new capacity with existing and new partners that will be essential to addressing prevention and outreach to the entire community.Circle of friends

To solve this problem, the members of the domestic violence system actually have to think differently about how they work together and explore new ways of addressing problems. Improving the domestic violence system’s ability to collaborate effectively will require that elected leaders support and dedicate resources to effective strategic collaboration and build skills in inter-organization collaboration to enhance the County’s capacity to uncover new solutions to existing problems.

Most government functions are narrowly defined inside one department and are fairly easy to audit (e.g., fleet services). However, many problems and issues in government are not so clearly defined. Making sure the domestic violence system functions effectively requires thinking about large theoretical concepts that are not easy to measure. They are also not easy to get at through isolated program evaluations that identify concerns in programs. Auditing domestic violence programs requires evaluating how the system as a whole interacts. In order to successfully reduce the problem of domestic violence, partners in the system cannot focus solely on coordinating crisis intervention. Instead, they must engage in strategic collaboration to build their collective capacity to engage in prevention and outreach. Applying broad theoretical concepts such as strategic collaboration has enabled me to not only produce more meaningful performance audits, but, more importantly, to provide tangible solutions to the problems facing government systems.

Shea Marshman holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy with an emphasis on Crime Policy from Portland State University. She is the Public Safety Auditor for Multnomah County and has also worked as a performance auditor for the City of Portland.
Dr. Marshman presented on her audit, Multnomah County Domestic Violence System: More Effective Collaboration will Enhance System Capacity, at the International Conference on Government Performance Measurement and Leadership on October 1-2, 2011. The conference was hosted by the Hatfield School of Government of Portland State University.