Tag Archives: social problems

Towards a new ‘accountability’

At a recent roundtable about nonprofit organizations and politics, a political commentator shared that what she is hearing from elected officials is that nonprofit organizations just need to ‘be accountable’ in order to avoid suffering drastically in the budget deficit reduction context.

Most of the heads around the table nodded. And I felt a little bit like I must have missed the Kool-Aid when it was passed around.

Because, I mean, “be accountable”?

What I think that those elected officials meant, and certainly what the analyst and those listening to her seemed to think, was that accountability means having low ‘overhead’ costs, running our organizations like a for-profit business (or, even better, just like a family balances its checkbook, right?), and finding seemingly magic ways to do more with less, over and over again.

And what I think, when I hear, “be accountable”, is that, first, it’s a pretty obvious effort to provide an ‘out’ for elected officials who will be tempted to cut funding to essential services. We didn’t slash HeadStart because we really, in the final assessment, don’t care all that much about educational equity. We cut HeadStart because it wasn’t ‘accountable’ enough. We aren’t eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit (not a nonprofit, obviously, but the same rationale is being used against them) because we think that low-income working people are kind of expendable. We’re eliminating it because of fraud (cousin to ‘unaccountable’).

Don’t get me wrong: I like accountability. A lot.

I think the only way we will ever make a significant dent in the problems that plague us–problems that literally keep me up at night–is by developing a vision of what our collective impact should be, and then holding each other completely accountable for reaching that vision.


I just disagree with both the definition and the process for this particular approach to ‘accountability’. I don’t think that margins spent on overhead are all that useful an indicator, and I don’t think that instituting management systems that hew to corporate practices is the silver bullet.

Instead, what I want to see made transparent is the theory of change behind organizations’ approaches to their work. We should all be able to know what they are setting out to achieve–present company included–what activities they undertake to pursue those goals, and why they believe that A will lead to B.

We cannot afford to content ourselves with a false transparency, when what we really need to know is impact.

We can’t confuse accountability with efficiency, because being really efficient in the pursuit of an empty metric isn’t something I find very worthy of investment.

When we are public with what change we want to see and how we are positioning ourselves to realize it, then we can hold ourselves accountable. For real.

Food Stamps and the Curse of Knowledge

**In response to some of the comments and questions from the last post about finding the essential core of a policy issue, I’ve been thinking more about why that’s so hard for us, as experts, and about what might help. This post, too, builds on some of the content from Made to Stick, specifically the idea that it is pretty easy to know too much about an issue. My advocacy over the past 8 months or so with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program issue in Kansas, again, illustrates that. I hope that my failures are instructive!**

We feel like we have to be such experts, don’t we, before we can step forward on an issue.

I was providing some consulting to a coalition earlier this spring, about how they could advance their advocacy interests, and there was a cluster within the group that really felt that they had to (their words) “completely understand an issue, from 360 degrees, before we can say anything”.

We can become paralyzed by our own need for certainty, sucked into a ceaseless search for more, and more, and more information.

And, so, then, once we have that information, and once we really are experts, at least in the sense of feeling confident in our accumulated knowledge and practice wisdom, how can we possibly believe that we shouldn’t at least attempt to share that knowledge with the world (or at least our policy targets)?

How can we believe that trying to communicate all that we know can, actually, be our own worst enemy?

When I first got panicked calls from the direct-service staff at El Centro, Inc., about the mothers who were coming in crying because their children’s food benefits had been cut off, I knew almost nothing about how the SNAP program calculated eligibility. It took me a few weeks to get a working understanding, and even longer to be able to really articulate what the policy had been, what it now was, and what that meant.

And, so, I thought I should share.

I created charts that showed how different family configurations fared, at different income levels. I used the phrase ‘pro-rata share’ so many times that my oldest son asked me (just from eavesdropping on my phone conversations) what in the world that means. I had to make ‘ineligibles’ a word, so that my spellcheck wouldn’t reject it. I found myself correcting other advocates, spending hours explaining the formula, and immigration law, and public benefit definitions, to media outlets and legislators and even my beleaguered husband.

And, still, when the state agency came to brief the Senate committee, I had to feed the senators questions, because they still didn’t really understand. Worse? Some people stopped caring.

They could chalk it up to being “really complex”, which can be code for “nebulous and shifty and probably not worth my energy anyway”.

Not a good place to be.

In addition to learning about the essence of a message, and how to figure out that, in this case, only a tiny bit needed to stick, I learned this other important truth:

We have to learn to talk about a policy like we don’t know everything about it, even if we’re really, really proud of how much we know.

Yes, finding answers requires that we become experts, and, yes, we feel great about that and think it should count for something, as though there were gold stars to be awarded for those who just know the most in the room.

But it doesn’t. And there aren’t.

And knowing too much, or, at least, forgetting that that can be a problem, hurts us when it comes time to tell others what they need to know.

Which is what really matters.

Because what we want, after all, is for policymakers to know that they know enough to know what they want to do…and we want that to be what we want them to do, too. We don’t want to confuse them, or shame them, or make them throw up their hands at the hopelessness of the quest to conquer this particular intellectual challenge.

So we can ‘wow’ our moms, or our pets, or maybe even some really good friends with what incredible experts we are.

And then we need to get comfortable talking about our issues like normal people.

Because they’re the ones we need to convince to do something about the problems.

And THAT will break the curse.

When is a social problem not a “problem”?

I spend more time than most people, probably, thinking about what makes us define certain conditions as social problems, or not, and about the impact of that problem definition on the development of a policy agenda that, ultimately, we hope will lead to significant change in those same social problems.

So it was with considerable chagrin and great interest that I read The Great Risk Shift, which is basically a couple hundred pages of compelling personal stories, strong economic trend data, and fairly detailed legislative and ideological analysis that, collectively, puts a name to a social problem that is undeniably such, but which I’ve never really spent much time contemplating:

Economic Insecurity

Distinct, then, from economic inequality, which I actually use as an example of when problematic conditions are not broadly accepted as social problems, but which Jacob Hacker argues is actually far more debated than the more insidious nature of economic insecurity (and he has a good point–we do talk about rising executive pay, at least a little, but who really contests the replacement of pensions with defined-contribution plans anymore?). Distinct, too, from poverty, which, despite being a seemingly intractable part of our economic structure (and on the rise, as the 2010 Census data will no doubt show), is universally recognized as a bad thing that deserves our attention (although that’s about where the agreement ends).

Economic insecurity, on the other hand, has become such a part of what we accept about economic life in the United States that, while we may recognize and even bemoan its effects–longer work weeks to compensate for stagnant wages; an increase in work activity among retirement-aged older adults; middle-class Americans saddled with their own student loan debt into middle age, and unable to save for their children’s education; workers who stay in dead-end jobs because they’re afraid to lose their health insurance; the rise in bankruptcies associated with health care costs; the tragic incidence of home foreclosures related to risky subprime loans–we still seldom pinpoint the cause at the foundation: a conscious decision on the part of policymakers and corporate leaders to shift the risks inherent with life and, especially, productive activity, onto ordinary families.

Social workers talk about the broken social contract, about how Aid to Families with Dependent Children has become a block grant and the safety net is really more like a tattered scarf that, if you’re lucky, you might use to keep a little warm in a storm…and, I think, that this idea of economic insecurity, the idea that no matter of work effort or personal initiative or all-around ‘goodness’ can really protect us against devastating loss, is part of what we’re railing against. After all, the welfare reform bill was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reform Act”, and Hacker calls this whole dismantling of the social insurance system part of the “personal responsibility crusade”.

But, when it comes to our own lives, this social problem has become so much a part of the fabric of “the way things work” that we lack some of the language, let alone the organizing strategy, with which to name and attack it. The personal responsibility movement has, at its heart, a message that “we’re all in this alone”, and that’s part of its danger–that same message pushes people to turn inward in the face of economic threats, and, when we’re looking to ourselves to find the fault, we’re less likely to get mad and join with our neighbor to make things right.

The health care debate over the past two years has brought some of these issues into focus, and the recession certainly provides an opportunity to organize around almost-universal experiences of uncertainty and doubt, if not outright panic and deprivation, but we have to start from a common understanding of what the problem is, how we got here, and how fundamentally our own lives and the workings of our economy will need to change in order to make economic security a strong foundation for the economic opportunity about which our country claims to be concerned.

Some of the pages that I marked as I read, that I think could be part of our journey to identify the problem of economic insecurity, mobilize the vast majority of Americans who know its consequences intimately, and bring about the change that we know only concerted action can:

  • I show a chart in my Advanced Policy class about wage stagnation over the past 3 decades, and we talk about the social and economic changes (increase in women’s labor participation, increased work effort, etc…) that has wrought in U.S. families. Hacker illustrates wage volatility, which spikes in economic downturns but is alarmingly high as a baseline, and discusses the economic and emotional effects of such dramatic dips and fluctuations in pay from year to year.
  • I also spend some time comparing the U.S. welfare state to that of other developed economies (and we’re always on the low end of investments and outcomes), but Hacker points out that, including private expenditures and tax incentives, the U.S. spends a lot on health care, retirement, and disability insurance. The problem is that, increasingly, these are not secure guarantees of any kinds but a hodgepodge of mostly employer-based benefits that lack portability, universality, adequacy, and stability.
  • Precisely because economic insecurity is a problem that cuts across economic classes, we have to address classism in our society in order to fight it. Hacker doesn’t talk about this; I’m not sure why, but it jumped out at me at several points. College-educated professionals have actually seen greater wage volatility over the past two decades than those workers with less education, and many of the foreclosures and bankruptcies associated with this recession have happened in households that were previously middle-class or even upper-income earners. But, of course, classism rages in the U.S., and so many of these well-educated, previously “successful” individuals are loathe to acknowledge that their performance in the “self-reliant” category has been less than stellar, and that, indeed, they are vulnerable and victimized by many of the same economic forces that afflict those less well-positioned. Everyone likes to look to those below and say, “at least I’m not….” and, as long as we’re dividing ourselves like that, we’ll blame ourselves or those lesser others, rather than the real culprits, for the strains we experience separately, yet together. This would, of course, affect anti-poverty policy, too, since the reality is that ALMOST 60% of Americans will spend at least a year in poverty between 20-75, even controlling for those cash-poor college years. Imagine if we had an anti-poverty policy based on that picture of who’s poor (most of us!).
  • It’s economic insecurity, even more than actual income level, that’s associated most strongly with psychological distress. We social workers know that we spend a lot of time dealing with the fallout from the way that policies harm our clients. These new insights help us to better understand precisely what’s inflicting these wounds–the stress of not knowing what tomorrow will bring to our finances is, quite literally, making us sick.
  • We’re NOT doing this to ourselves. Myself, I know that I’ve been guilty of that whole “policy analysis by anecdote”, shaking my head at a friend’s purchase of a house she really can’t afford or a relative’s purchase of television so huge it scares (really) my children. My husband and I don’t buy very much, not as much because of a grand plan to provide for our economic security as because we don’t want really want very much, and so it’s easy to look at others’ decisions and raise our eyebrows. But Hacker cites data from Elizabeth Warren that illustrates pretty definitively that the income gains of the past few decades have been eaten up by the rising cost of basic household expenses–housing, health care, transportation, taxes, education, and childcare–not by our expanded expectations.

    And perhaps it’s that last point that can serve as the starting point for implementing Hacker’s three-point plan of “get wise, get mad, get even”. We do need to know what we can do to protect ourselves in the current “fend for oneself” environment–the whole “secure your oxygen mask before helping others” idea. But we can’t stop there. If we’re not responsible for this mess (as I often tell my kids!), we shouldn’t have to clean it all up. We need to agitate and organize, and build the kinds of policy structures that will bring an equitable and adequate measure of economic security to all Americans.

    In other words, let’s call it a problem and then solve it.

  • Maybe duplication isn’t such a bad thing (?)

    We hear it all the time, right? From grantmakers and politicians and our own executive directors: Thou Shalt Not Duplicate Services.

    It’s one of those things that, on its face, seems like the most reasonable prohibition in the world. We have limited resources and so many problems, so why in the world would we want to duplicate what someone else is already doing?

    Some of my thinking about organizational effectiveness and how we measure social work impact has got me thinking about this in a new way, though.

    Because, the truth is, there are many social problems where we’re really not making much progress. Whoever is occupying that field, so to speak, could apparently use some help figuring out the best way to attack the problem. Who’s to say that they’re not the wrong people to solve it (even if they did get there first), and that your approach might not be better?

    At its core, I think a lot of the concern with duplication of services is that we’re still, too often, measuring “services”, rather than impact. And if your only deliverable is “an after-school program” rather than “increasing literacy rates among adolescent males” or something more, well, real, like that, then of course it’s going to be concerning to see several different programs all offering after-school programs, because it would arguably be more cost-efficient to centralize those resources.

    But, in that scenario, the problem is with what we’re tracking (and not), not with the duplication itself. After all, if literacy rates are still lower than they should be, a funder or other interested party would be hard-pressed to argue that your organization couldn’t work on that social problem because “it’s already being taken care of.” It’s not.

    But how do we make the case for innovative approaches to social problems, when there’s this preoccupation with avoiding what looks like duplication?

    The key, I think, is to address the problem at its core: doing a better job of articulating the value we bring to the social endeavor, instead of talking about our outputs because it’s what we have figured out how to measure.

    The book, the Wisdom of Crowds, talks about this in a roundabout way, providing evidence that multiple actors (most often in the scientific arena) conducting parallel experiments on the same problems, leads to richer understanding of the questions at hand and far greater confidence in the results. To achieve those gains, of course, we’ve got to be rigorously evaluating our interventions, demonstrating their impact against the baseline of the social problem, and making those results available to others committed to the same outcomes, so that we can learn from and adopt the best interventions.

    But those are things that we should be doing for our own understanding, anyway, so that we’re sure that we’re headed in the right direction and likely to reach our destination. And, if that’s the case, then I think we’ll be able to make the case to the “no duplication” crowd that, after all, there’s an advantage in having traveling companions.

    What do you think? Would such a shift away from the “no duplication under any circumstances” policy siphon off valuable resources? Is there too little overlap between the hard sciences and what we do in social work for these parallels to be useful? What have been your experiences with best practices work and outcomes research in social services? Funders, how would you respond to an organization making a case like this?

    Trending in Action: “Ideas for Change in America”

    According to the folks at Change.org, “Ideas for Change in America is a crowd-sourcing competition that empowers citizens to identify and build momentum around the most innovative ideas for addressing challenges our country faces. The 10 most popular ideas will be presented at an event in Washington, DC to relevant members of the Obama Administration, and Change.org will subsequently mobilize its full community to support a series of grassroots campaigns to turn each idea into reality.”

    Here’s a list of the ideas submitted so far for 2010. The 2009 list, unfortunately, hasn’t really been touched, but we know that building movements take awhile, right? And I guess there’s something valuable to be gained by bringing new campaigns on while still laboring on those other priorities? Or maybe the political landscape has shifted such that some of those other issues (health care, immigration, civil liberties) don’t seem as ripe today as they did in the honeymoon phase of the Obama Administration?

    Some thoughts:

  • Crowdsourcing suggests that a crowd will come up with the best possible ideas only when that crowd displays considerable diversity, so that you’re actually bringing ideas from across a spectrum, not from an amalgamation of a relatively homogenous group. Unfortunately, the people who spend time at Change.org (and the organizations that are the partners for the contest), while I tend to agree with most of their orientation (!), are mainly fairly tech-savvy, younger, left-leaning people (hence the idea to “end the oligarchy”), which may ultimately mean that some good ideas that could be drawn from other parts of society are lost.
  • There is a certain ‘trendiness’ here: for example, one of the ideas that was originally sent to me was to require television of Supreme Court cases. I, for one, would really like to watch the Supreme Court, and it would be a cool teaching tool, but there are also some concerns about how such publicity might change the tenor of deliberation. What’s more interesting to me, really, than the pro and con of this issue is what it reflects: our current emphasis on transparency.
  • Finally, I’ve been watching with interest the whole mobilization process that organizations are using to elevate their suggestions. In the end, the ideas that emerge victorious may be not necessarily those that resonate most with some amorphous public but those surrounded by constituencies that know how to use these media to rally people to their cause. In that sense, it’s not unlike the fundraising challenges that have used social media recently, and not immune to the controversies surrounding them.

    But what I’d really like to know is what ideas YOU have to make this a better country. What kinds of policy changes? What kinds of structural reforms? You can submit your ideas here. And can an effort like this play a role in the process of building momentum around these issues? If you think so, then go vote!

  • Saying “I told you so”–the power of social indicators

    I love it when I find the perfect example to use for class. It’s as though the world is guest lecturing, or something. Wonderful.

    One of the assignments that I use for the Advanced Policies and Programs course relates to social indicators–basically, how we know what it is that we think we know about the social problems that face us. For example, we don’t know what real unemployment looks like, we only know our unemployment rate, which uses a particular definition of unemployment (which specifically excludes those people who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for a job), and which inevitably misses some people who might, from their own perspective, view themselves as ‘unemployed’.

    The assignment asks students to analyze a social problem and its indicator, discussing how the indicator might be improved, the particular perspective it articulates, and what the indicator says about how we, collectively, view that social problem. Students are unanimous that it’s a tough assignment, because they have to dissect social problems in a way that they never have before, but it’s also uniquely useful in making them more sophisticated analysts, better able to critique our way of ‘knowing’.

    And one of the points that I make frequently is that the mere fact that we collect social indicators on some social problems and not really on others says volumes about what we really prioritize, and that a way to begin to shift those priorities can be, sometimes, just changing the kinds of questions that we ask and the kinds of data we collect. After all, we can’t paint those very compelling pictures of injustice if we don’t know exactly what that injustice looks like (or, at least, we can’t do it well).

    A section in Half the Sky (go on, get it now, I’ll wait) speaks to this. In 2000, Congress started to require the State Department to put out an annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). It ranks countries according to how they combat trafficking, and it includes sanctions for those in the lowest tier.

    This is where, often, social justice advocates would start to roll their eyes–the whole “Rome burns and we issue a report” thing.

    But wait. The power of social indicators.

    What happened once Congress started to require this report is that American diplomats had to collect the data, so they started to talk with ministry counterparts in the countries where they were working, putting pressure on them to collect the data, prioritizing trafficking then, similarly to anti-terrorism, weapons proliferation, and drug trafficking concerns. The foreign ministries had to find the data that the Americans were demanding, or else risk their approbation. And, of course, those sanction threats didn’t hurt either.

    Whether from wanting to avoid falling into that lower tier, currying favor with Americans (perhaps to make up for other areas where they were falling short of diplomats’ expectations), or legitimately outraged at what they were discovering in their countries as a result of their inquiries, countries began to act. They passed laws, conducted law enforcement raids, and initiated their own investigations. As the authors discuss and I found in my own research into this effort subsequently, the TIP has even more potential for impact. As is perhaps not surprising, the human trafficking office is marginalized within the Department of State (they report that it’s not even in the same building!). The issuance of the report is perfunctory, when we need press conferences and Presidential response. And, while the lowest tier countries are sanctioned, there are no incentives for those excelling.

    Still, there are indications that, in the wake of TIP, the cost of doing business went up for brothels, eroding their profits and encouraging some traffickers to find another line of work. And the ripple effects from formally denouncing trafficking and exploitation of women are significant, too.

    Indicators matter. We collect and talk about and disseminate that about which we care. And as we, as social workers, improve our ability to use and interpret and manipulate social indicators to not only reflect social problems but actually move the needle, we’ll get closer to the world as it should be.