Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)

Melody Barnes & Paul Schmitz at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “…Data-driven and evidence-based practices present new opportunities for public and social sector leaders to increase impact while reducing inefficiency. But in adopting such approaches, leaders must avoid the temptation to act in a top-down manner. Instead, they should design and implement programs in ways that engage community members directly in the work of social change. …

Under the sponsorship of an organization called Results for America, we recently undertook a research project that focused on how leaders can and should pursue data-driven social change efforts. For the project, we interviewed roughly 30 city administrators, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, researchers, and community builders from across the United States. We began this research with a simple premise: Social change leaders now have an unprecedented ability to draw on data-driven insight about which programs actually lead to better results.

Leaders today know that babies born to mothers enrolled in certain home visiting programs have healthier birth outcomes. (The Nurse-Family Partnership, which matches first-time mothers with registered nurses, is a prime example of this type of intervention.3) They know that students in certain reading programs reach higher literacy levels. (Reading Partners, for instance, has shown impressive results with a program that provides one-on-one reading instruction to struggling elementary school students.4) They know that criminal offenders who enter job-training and support programs when they leave prison are less likely to re-offend and more likely to succeed in gaining employment. (The Center for Employment Opportunities has achieved such outcomes by offering life-skills education, short-term paid transitional employment, full-time job placement, and post-placement services.5)

Results for America, which launched in 2012, seeks to enable governments at all levels to apply data-driven approaches to issues related to education, health, and economic opportunity. In 2014, the organization published a book called Moneyball for Government. (The title is a nod to Moneyball, a book by Michael Lewis that details how the Oakland A’s baseball club used data analytics to build championship teams despite having a limited budget for player salaries.) The book features contributions by a wide range of policymakers and thought leaders (including Melody Barnes, a co-author of this article). The editors of Moneyball for Government, Jim Nussle and Peter Orszag, outline three principles that public officials should follow as they pursue social change:

  • “Build evidence about the practices, policies, and programs that will achieve the most effective and efficient results so that policymakers can make better decisions.
  • “Invest limited taxpayer dollars in practices, policies, and programs that use data, evidence, and evaluation to demonstrate they work.
  • “Direct funds away from practices, policies, and programs that consistently fail to achieve measurable outcomes.”6

These concepts sound simple. Indeed, they have the ring of common sense. Yet they do not correspond to the current norms of practice in the public and nonprofit sectors. According to one estimate, less than 1 percent of federal nondefense discretionary spending goes toward programs that are backed by evidence. In a 2014 report, Lisbeth Schorr and Frank Farrow note that the influence of evidence on decision-making—“especially when compared to the influence of ideology, politics, history, and even anecdotes”—has been weak among policymakers and social service providers. (Schorr is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and Farrow is director of the center.)

That needs to change. There is both an economic and a moral imperative for adopting data-driven approaches. Given persistently limited budgets, public and nonprofit leaders must direct funds to programs and initiatives that use data to show that they are achieving impact. Even if unlimited funds were available, moreover, leaders would have a responsibility to design programs that will deliver the best results for beneficiaries….

The Need for “Patient Urgency”

The inclination to move fast in creating and implementing data-driven programs and practices is understandable. After all, the problems that communities face today are serious and immediate. People’s lives are at stake. If there is evidence that a particular intervention can (for example) help more children get a healthy start in life—or help them read at grade level, or help them develop marketable skills—then setting that intervention in motion is pressingly urgent.

But acting too quickly in this arena entails a significant risk. All too easily, the urge to initiate programs expeditiously translates into a preference for top-down forms of management. Leaders, not unreasonably, are apt to assume that bottom-up methods will only slow the implementation of programs that have a record of delivering positive results.

A former director of data and analytics for a US city offers a cautionary tale that illustrates this idea. “We thought if we got better results for people, they would demand more of it,” she explains. “Our mayor communicated in a paternal way: ‘I know better than you what you need. I will make things better for you. Trust me.’ The problem is that they didn’t trust us. Relationships matter. Not enough was done to ask people what they wanted, to honor what they see and experience. Many of our initiatives died—not because they didn’t work but because they didn’t have community support.”

To win such support, policymakers and other leaders must treat community members as active partners. “Doing to us, not with us, is a recipe for failure,” says Fuller, who has deep experience in building community-led coalitions. “If we engage communities, then we have a solution and we have the leadership necessary to demand that solution and hold people accountable for it.” Engaging a community is not an activity that leaders can check off on a list. It’s a continuous process that aims to generate the support necessary for long-term change. The goal is to encourage intended beneficiaries not just to participate in a social change initiative but also to champion it.

“This work takes patient urgency,” Fuller argues. “If you aren’t patient, you only get illusory change. Lasting change is not possible without community. You may be gone in 5 or 10 years, but the community will still be there. You need a sense of urgency to push the process forward and maintain momentum.” The tension between urgency and patience is a productive tension. Navigating that tension allows leaders and community members to achieve the right level of engagement.

Rich Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, makes this point in a post on his website: “Understanding and strengthening a community’s civic culture is as important to collective efforts as using data, metrics and measuring outcomes. … A weak civic culture undermines the best intentions and the most rigorous of analyses and plans. For change to happen, trust and community ownership must form, people need to engage with one another, and we need to create the right underlying conditions and capabilities for change to take root and spread.”…(More)