Realignment Review: New Reality for Advocates

In the first in an occasional series of posts about the implementation of California’s realignment, Reed Connell takes a look back at this complete transformation of our public policy environment…and what it all means for advocates around the state.

Over the past couple of years, California has significantly transformed the administration of most of its children’s programs through an historic transfer of fiscal and policy-making authority from the state legislature to county boards of supervisors.

When I first started writing about 2011 Realignment at the Bay Citizen over a year and a half ago, the primary pieces were in place but policymakers were still working out the details, stakeholders were still parsing the implications, and a lot was riding on a November 2012 ballot measure, Proposition 30.

For nearly a year after realignment was first proposed, I spent a lot of time explaining to anyone who’d listen that the policy was about much more than just jails. From the beginning, the governor used the term “Public Safety Realignment” to describe the complex mechanics of transferring nearly $6 billion worth of social service and health programs to the counties.

Associating the policy with public safety made it more politically viable, but as I noted in that April 2012 post, there are more dollars, more services, and more Californians affected by the realignment of social programs than by the realignment of the criminal justice system. Most of foster care and child welfare, nearly all community based mental health services, and a number of other small but vital programs were included in realignment.

Before, the sections of the California budget describing and funding these programs ran to dozens of pages. Afterwards, they hardly appear at all. While many of the included programs are still subject to federal rules and mandates, the structure of realignment affords county decision makers increased flexibility and (at the moment) increased revenue.

Conversations about how to administer programs and how to invest revenues now take place primarily at the county level, among the various supervisors, county departments, nonprofit service providers, and community stakeholders that together administer California’s social safety net.

From the start, California’s dedicated and assertive community of human service nonprofit organizations understood that they, their clients, and constituents had a significant stake in this transformed public policy environment. As Sean Hughes made clear in this Chronicle of Social Change post last spring, nonprofits can have a powerful impact when they speak from experience, engage in public debates, and advocate for improvements in social programs.

The question for local decision-makers and advocates was, from the outset, whether we’ll choose to continue on in coping mode and crisis thinking, or whether we’ll seize on realignment’s changes as an opportunity to innovate and better address the many complex social issues underlying the goals and strategies of the included programs.

After years of painful cuts to our safety net programs, it would be tempting to focus on restoring some of what was lost. Certainly, in some cases, that would in fact be wise. But 2011 Realignment also presents an opportunity to innovate – to develop new approaches, scale up successful initiatives and projects, or reprioritize investment to fit the current moment.

While many of these dynamics were apparent from the start, it was only last November that realignment was made definitive and permanent. Prop 30 was billed as the capstone to the Governor’s plan for solving the state’s seemingly perpetual budget crisis. All focus was on a set of temporary tax increases intended to bridge government funding from a provisional, early stage recovery to a full resumption of California’s robust economic growth. But Prop 30 also wrote realignment into the state constitution, making permanent the revised balance of power between the legislature and county boards.

Realignment is thus the new reality for California’s child welfare, foster care, and community mental health programs; not a temporary strategy, not a recession era intervention, but truly a redefinition of the policymaking context for many programs serving our most vulnerable. And it’s complex: “local control” in California means that 58 different boards oversee 58 different sets of interlocking systems and are subject to the unique pressures of 58 different counties’ demographic, political, and social realities.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been leading a broad based coalition in Alameda County in an attempt to transform our advocacy efforts to best address the new reality. We’ve advanced a set of steps and strategies from the core goals of transparency, accountability, and participatory decision-making.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be reflecting on our experience as well as commenting on some emerging evidence of the transformational nature of realignment. I invite other advocates and stakeholders to join the conversation – the sheer complexity of this new reality means it’ll take a lot of talking to figure it all out.

Reed Connell is the Executive Director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.

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About Reed Connell 9 Articles
Reed Connell is the Executive Director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.