Tag Archives: devolution

THIS is devolution I can live with

I stand by my conviction that there are real dangers in the move towards local ‘control’ (read: responsibility) for essential, shared, national functions (public education, welfare, health). There are too many cracks through which people fall, too many chances for parochialism to cloud out the common good, and too many imbalances between the capacities of our local communities to make this trend compatible with a broad vision of social justice.

Still, I cheered when I came across a press release from my good friends at the National Immigration Law Center about their collaboration with the Progressive States Network to bring together state policymakers committed to progressive policy change (in this case, in the area of immigrant-related policy) across the country.

As I see them, the goals are primarily three-fold: to counteract the conservative trends cropping up around the nation, to provide real progressive leadership on some of the social challenges of our time (in the hopes that Congress, may indeed, be listening!), and, also, to take advantage of the considerable authority devolved to state governments, in many of the critical aspects of human well-being.

And, in the “work with what you’ve got” school of policymaking, it’s about as excellent news as I could imagine. I, for one, would love to have my policies made (at any level of government) by people who group their work on immigration under the heading of “valuing families”, and who have an entire initiative focused on the challenges facing working people.

Make no mistake: the most common kind of devolution is still the “make you think you gained control when what you really lost is money and central accountability” type.

But these progressive legislators–not just in Massachusetts and Illinois but Nebraska and Arizona, too, and the network supporting them, are out to change that. And that’s the kind of “experimentation and replication” that I could get excited about.

Rethinking ‘devolution’: The devolved nonprofit

**I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

So, um, obviously, I haven’t exactly made my disdain for the ideology of devolution a secret, right? And, when we’re talking about devolution as code for “the federal government abdicates its responsibility to provide for the citizenry and uses devolution as an ideological shield”, then I’m still against it.

But, I realized as I was preparing lectures on organizational structure and its impact on social workers and their clients, and in reading The Wisdom of Crowds, my disgust with the politics of devolution led me to disregard some of its underpinings in an illogical way, especially because, in general, I believe very strongly in shared governance and real empowerment.

And it’s empowerment that this kind of devolution–the kind that flattens organizational hierarchies, gives people tools and power to make their own decisions, and stops pretending that specific individuals with influential titles hold exclusive patent on good ideas for solving social problems–is really about. We need to embrace dissent within our organizations, knowing that too much deference can lead to disaster. We need to give people real authority, because there’s nothing worse than having to be part of group deliberations with the knowledge that you can’t really do anything together.

Some of the best evidence I’ve seen for the wisdom of this approach to organizational power and decision-making comes in Surowiecki’s revelation (which, of course, shouldn’t be as surprising as it is) that there’s really no evidence that anyone can even become an expert in something like ‘decision making’ or ‘strategic planning’. Really, expertise is far more narrow and far less applicable to broad social or organizational problems to be very helpful in those cases. This means that, for those types of problems where there are no clear-cut solutions (um, social workers–heard of any of those?), our best chance at getting the best answer is in promoting the free exchange of conflicting views and aggregating the opinions of those hashing out the decisions.

I had a few flashbacks of the Reagan revolution when reading about the role of the populace in Athenian democracy, or even Moses’ decision to rule only in ‘great matters’, leaving all other decisions to local rulers. We still need to be sure that we’re talking about real decentralization of power, not just responsibility, and we must recognize that the infatuation with decentralization can be as dangerous as its dismissal.

There are certainly some problems that don’t lend themselves well to decentralized solutions (income inequality, environmental destruction, and labor standards come to mind), but the nonprofit organization that can figure out when and where and how to harness the wisdom of their respective crowds can build fairer, more nimble, more responsive organizations, and likely get better results, too.

Devolution as Demolition: Social welfare budgets and the states

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Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

I had to pretty much completely revise my lectures on state and federal budgetary/fiscal policies for this fall’s Advanced Policies course. I wanted to include content on the federal stimulus, some information on how tax and budgetary policies likely will (and, perhaps even more importantly) will not change under an Obama Administration, and also discuss the extreme fiscal strain on states.

It was in researching that latter point that the cruelty and profound injustice of our journey towards devolution became so much clearer. It has been at times a slow slide and at other times a dramatic drop, but the end result is clear: states are responsible for more and more of the social welfare functions that the federal government used to provide.

In much of the professional/academic literature on the topic of new federalism, including that which comes from social workers, this lament is always accompanied by the disclaimer: “but now decision-making is so much closer to the people.” As though we’re comparing equal entities’ provision of service so that, of course, we would prefer that which is more nimble and responsive and “democratic”. Setting aside the not-trivial question of whether state governments really are more accountable and representative, this recession is bringing into focus the fundamental ways in which comparisons between state and federal social welfare systems would be laughable, if the impact wasn’t so tragic.

To put it in perspective: the combined fiscal capacity ($$$$) of all of the state budgets in the country is only a little more than half of the size of the federal budget. Yes, I know that the federal government is responsible for many things that the states are not (chiefly, national defense) but, in today’s euphemistically titled ‘new federalism’, the reverse is also true. Slice it however you want, wrap it up in pretty ‘responsive, accountable, nimble’ paper, but it’s still means that there’s just not enough to go around when we push things off on state governments that are smaller, more restricted in their revenue generation (especially as states’ tax bases are linked to the federal one, which keeps being eroded), and unable to borrow money (except Connecticut!) when times get really tough.

I’ve tried all week to come up with an analogy that I think really illustrates this, but here’s the best I could come up with. Hopefully someone has something better that they can post in the comments (hint, hint!)?

Say you’re really hungry. Really, really hungry. You go to a restaurant, and your choice is between one table, served by the nicest waiter who will let you choose the color of napkin that you want and what music to listen to, will come running anytime you call, and asks for your opinions before making a move. But, at this table, you can only have a small slice of bread or half an apple (you can choose, but that’s all they have). At the other table, there’s no tablecloth, the food is brought out by an unsmiling robot, and you can’t choose what you get, but you’ll get a decent plate of food: say, spaghetti and meatballs (it’s still not 4 star, folks, let’s not kid ourselves). Which would you choose?

This current recession is not done devastating states. Budget shortfalls are projected to be even worse in Fiscal Year 2011 than they are this year. And this year they’re horrible. As in more than $350 billion dollars, between them, for both years combined. Stimulus dollars cover less than 40% of this gap, so states are slashing budgets for higher education, public assistance, state workforce, K-12 schools, and services for seniors. More than 39 states have already cut programs for their most vulnerable residents. And it’s going to get worse.

Social work advocates can and should (and MUST) fight these battles in our state legislatures, arguing persuasively for the programs that people need to survive and to thrive. We have to win more of those fights every year. But we also need to point out what governors all over the country are quickly learning: there’s only so much that a state can do. Some of the core services that states are currently cutting should not, really, be their responsibility at all. We have a federal government to provide for our common welfare, not just our collective defense. The era of devolution as demolition needs to come to an end. We need to stop using squishy language about taking government close to the people and start ensuring that people get what they need.