SAN FRANCISCO — When Tracy Colunga shows up in an office in Long Beach, Calif., asking for data, she’s used to getting a cold reception.
“They’re scared,” said Colunga, who leads the city’s innovation team. “Like, ‘Why did the mayor send you here? We’re gonna end up on the front page of the Press-Telegram, our local newspaper.’ And we’re like, ‘No, we’re here to help.’”
Her job is innovation. That means coaxing reluctant government workers to try doing things they’ve never done before. And at the Bridge SF conference in San Francisco, she shared some methods she’s developed.
Colunga told conference-goers about one project in particular, where last year the innovation team decided to focus on a very particular problem: The group of people who find themselves arrested, booked, released and arrested again and again.
“The innovation team took a deep dive with the police department last year to really look at public safety and our repeat offenders, the top 5 percent of offenders who are cycling in and out of our city jail,” she said. “How do we begin to reduce incarceration through a data-driven approach?”
When she showed up at the police department asking for that information, they were just as hesitant as anybody else.
“It took five months to actually get the police data, and that was through ongoing meetings and conversations and coffees with the chief and full team meetings,” Colunga said.
Throughout those negotiations, she looked for ways to allay the department’s concerns. Colunga swore not to share the information outside of the team’s work and gave the department control over what they wanted to release.
But once the team got their hands on the data, identified the 5 percent of people who cycled in and out of jail most often and interviewed them, it was only the beginning of their struggles to get the data they needed. Because Colunga had a hunch.
“I’m a social worker by trade … and so I [had] a feeling these people are intersecting with other departments in our city,” she said. “So we started to pull together [our] health jurisdiction, our fire department, code enforcement, city attorney’s office. So once we got the names, date of birth and information of these 875 people, we developed an administrative regulation, which is a regulation that allows our city departments to share around our highly-utilized city services.”
The departments, however, were still doubtful. She was talking about things that, under different circumstances, could have opened them up to legal liability.
“We first started meeting with the departments [and] they were very tenuous, like, ‘No, we can’t share, HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act],’ and, you know, they had all these [concerns about] confidentiality,” she said.
She worked to reassure them that they had done the legal work through the administrative regulation to make sure that they could share, and then they went even further than that. She agreed to only share the data within the walls of a single room, with only city employees present.
Finally the departments brought in the records they had for the names they had identified and went around the room discussing their department’s interactions with each person. A lot of them were shocked.
“Through that hand count, very preliminary findings, half of the people had accessed our homeless services; anything from taking a shower to getting mail to all the way to full case management,” Colunga said. “Seventy percent of them were also high utilizers of our fire EMT, and they were cycling in and out of the hospital, and we realized they were also cycling in and out of the jail. For code enforcement we found for those, the other half that do have addresses, apartments or homes, there was a quarter of them that had opened nuisance cases, which again leads me to believe they’re living in apartment buildings or they’re renting property where there’s other criminal behavior happening. When everybody showed up [at the meeting] with their Excel spreadsheet from their department with the names, and we went around, and it was like the light bulb went on one by one, like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people are in our various systems. I know John Doe and he’s been doing this, and we saw him 12 times in the last two months.’”
These were the people disproportionately taking up the time, resources and money of the city departments. By sharing information, the innovation team had finally found them.
Now they’re trying to figure out what to do about it. One idea is to ask these people, when they get arrested, if they want to go to mental health treatment services upon their release.
But in the meantime, Colunga is trying to expand the work even farther. Long Beach is surrounded by other cities in the Los Angeles area, and it stands to reason that some of these people might also show up in some databases in other governments around the area. She expects a slow response there, too.
“It could take anywhere up to 18 months to actually execute a [memorandum of understanding],” she said. “So, we’re in the process of executing MOUs with L.A. County probation, L.A. County mental health and L.A. County health services. They each are their own entity and have their own county councils. They each have their own hurdles, but the good news is I’m not going to retire for a really long time, so they’re stuck with me.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.