The ‘right’ form of human services in the current fiscal environment

Yesterday, I testified before the Minnesota Housing Finance and Policy Committee about the power of intentional networks in human services delivery. For the last two years, I have been studying two nonprofit networks because of my interest in the role such agencies play in social policy implementation. The study occurs in a particular context. In the last part of the 20th century, governments at all levels increasingly turned to nonprofits as vendors for human services. The ideology – what academics call ‘new public management’ – embraced business approaches and presumed competition would yield more efficient and effective services. Yet, research increasingly revealed these assumptions did not hold. In fact, there many unintended consequences for government, for nonprofit agencies, for citizens. In this context, I wanted to learn more about alternative service structures. What could improve government investment? What could enhance service quality for citizens?

This led me to the current study of two networks of Minnesota’s human service agencies. One network – the Community Action Partnership – has its origins in the anti-poverty work of the Great Society. The other network – the MACC Alliance of Connected Communities – formed ten years ago from a bottom up effort of metro-wide settlement houses and communities centers. They were wanting to remake their nearly 100 year old tradition of human service provision for a new era. Both provide social services to low-income Minnesotans. Both have a nonprofit organization at the hub of their network.

For the committee, I highlighted three lessons relevant to the current discussions many are having about the ‘right’ form of human services in the current fiscal environment.

1. There is significance of government working with intentional networks. Each month, the executive directors of these two networks gather to share information and improve their operations. Their staff – in human resources, finance, program areas – gather as well. They share questions about operations and generate answers. When times get tough, they draw upon the collective resources of the whole, in small and large ways. By coming together the networks create an identity that improves both the effectiveness of their own organizations and the entire human service system. It helps them see the order underlying the chaos that too often characterize the ‘contracting out’ regime.

2. Public investment must move beyond narrow categorical funding. One of our deep beliefs, as Minnesotans, is that communities themselves hold many solutions to problems. And yet, the structure of much public funding pulls organizations away from listening to their constituents. Government’s categorical program rules literally make them unable to hear. Private philanthropy – long an important partner in public service provision – has followed suit with increasingly narrow investments. Few revenue provide resources which enable nonprofit leaders to listen to communities and respond. Public investments also go beyond grant dollars. In the Community Action case, the state’s investment in the Office of Economic Opportunity allows these nonprofits to share essential field-based insights with state government. It connects them with technical assistance, federal grant opportunities, and insightful staff. It operates not merely as funder but as partner.

3. There is great potential for the public sector in working with intermediary organizations. Intermediaries work to package funding and technical assistance for direct service providers. It allows investments to be maximized and programmatic expertise shared throughout the whole network.

While the times are really tough for nonprofit, human service providers, there is an opportunity to think a new about how to create structures that enhance great front-line services for needy Minnesotans.

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