Howard County soon will have its own public policy center that will analyze the best and most cost-effective ways for the county to deal with issues ranging from adult illiteracy to housing costs.
The policy analysis center will be sponsored by the Horizon Foundation and the Association for Community Services, two decades-old organizations dedicated to improving the lives of county residents.
A director is expected to be hired by the spring, said Anne Towne, executive director of ACS, and Richard Krieg, president of the Horizon Foundation. That person will work out of the new ninth-floor ACS offices on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, creating reports that identify trends and weigh in on practices and legislative solutions from throughout the nation.
"It's not quite a think tank, but it's a place for professional, neutral research analysis," Towne said. "It will provide research, analysis and best practices for issues that typically would be brought to the center."
The policy center is the most recent sign that ACS, an organization that in 1963 started informal information-sharing sessions among health services organizations, has become an important resource for human services organizations and the county.
ACS, which calls itself "the voice of human services," is a network of 150 nonprofit, for-profit and government agencies and citizens that advances human services in Howard County through advocacy and education.
It provides training and education to its members, helps new agencies get off the ground and is a human-services advocate for the community. It is also a resource for networking within the field of human services. "Our purpose is to support our members," said Judy Pittman, education and training coordinator for ACS.
Recently, ACS held training sessions for people with new managerial positions on nonprofit boards. Since 1975, the group has presented Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards each year to people and organizations that go "above and beyond" in service to the community. The award is named for a former director of the county Department of Social Services.
But ACS officials realize that good intentions are not enough. To make a difference, it is important to understand the problems facing the county and the services that are in place, Towne said. One goal is to make sure services are not duplicated. That is where the public policy center can help.
Towne, who has been executive director of ACS for seven years, recently oversaw the ACS' move from Elkridge to Columbia. Since May, it has been in a sleek office suite next to the Horizon Foundation.
As ACS grows and gains in expertise, it is increasingly called upon to bring its members together to discuss "issues of concern," such as affordable housing, Towne said. The group puts together annual reports on priority issues, and "lately we've been trying to focus on specific action," Towne said.
The policy center will seek to bring those reports to a higher level of sophistication and make more detailed recommendations. "If we're really interested in providing a long-term answer, then what are the pieces to that answer?" Towne said.
"Here in Howard County, we want to go that extra mile and really have a safer, healthier community," Krieg said. "Without the information and without the analysis, that becomes a daunting proposition, particularly as the county becomes more complex."
The director will hire consultants to help with research, Towne said. At first, the center will focus on two or three issues of importance to ACS and the Horizon Foundation, but over time, the resource will become available to others, including county government and the schools.
"We've been talking about this for a couple of years," said Roy Appletree, president of the ACS board of directors. "When you look around, there are no public policy centers that focus on Howard County," he said.
Many communities have a built-in public policy center in the form of a local university that studies homegrown problems and policies as a matter of course. In Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University serves that function. Howard County, home of Howard Community College, does not have a similar academic tradition of public policy research within its borders.
Krieg predicted that the center "will prove to be a very significant asset here in Howard County. ... This policy center is designed to really upgrade our ability to solve problems."
"It's very exciting," Towne said.