Tag Archives: social problems

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.