I’ll be the first to admit that I write this post with a pre-existing bias about the importance of public policy. As a former Congressional staffer, I witnessed from an insider’s perspective the transformative power that advocacy can have in creating systemic change, especially when undertaken collectively.
Unfortunately here in California, I am concerned that many of the state’s child welfare providers are underestimating the value and importance of direct advocacy and policy engagement.
While the child welfare system here operates through contracts with private providers, it is overwhelmingly supported by public funds and overseen by public officials. Providers typically rely on a matrix of county, state, and federal government programs to fund their operations.
The policies and regulations that these levels of governments implement can have a tremendous effect on an agency’s ability to serve its clients, making it critical for child welfare providers to be involved in policy formulation.
Organizations should have the capacity to anticipate policy developments and influence them in a way that will help children and families. Too frequently, child welfare agencies are so focused on internal operations that they find themselves reacting after a particular policy goes into effect. This can cause difficult transitions and minimizes the voice that the child welfare field has in setting up the system within which it works and about which it knows best.
Now is the time for child welfare agencies to involve themselves in policy. The struggling economy has forced governments to embrace fiscal austerity, making it a precarious time for social service programs. Child welfare agencies need to make their voices heard and their programs known so that their ability to serve the community is not diminished.
Furthermore, while the fiscal situation makes much of the policy work defensive by nature, there remain windows of opportunity to pursue new policies to improve outcomes for children and families. Realignment of child welfare and mental health services to the county level creates new possibilities for providers to find support for innovative services and initiatives. Implementation of federal health reform will also produce a new landscape that behavioral health providers can benefit from if they take the time to understand and adapt to it.
These opportunities must be identified and seized upon if child welfare organizations are going to lead the field.
One of the main challenges with advocacy is that it is often hard to quantify its value. The legislative process has been compared to sausage making because it is messy and people would rather not know how it is done or what went into it. Before becoming a law, a policy proposal often undergoes so many iterations that it is almost impossible to track its true legislative history.
Unfortunately in a data-driven world, agencies are under tremendous pressure to document progress. These difficulties in quantifying advocacy’s effect give many providers an excuse to punt on investing their time and money in policy engagement.
However, a 2012 report by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP) makes great progress in measuring advocacy’s benefit. Entitled “Leveraging Limited Dollars,” the study examined the community impact of foundation grants to nonprofits for policy and civil engagement.
The authors analyzed $231 million in grants awarded to 110 organizations (including 15 in Los Angeles County) working on a broad range of issues in 13 states and determined that the investments yielded $26.6 billion in benefits, often for society’s most at-risk populations including children and youth. Each dollar invested by these foundations in nonprofit advocacy yielded an astounding $115 in community benefits.
Also pertinent was the study’s conclusion that significant strides were usually only made when organizations worked together in coalitions. In California, collective policy engagement on child welfare issues has never been more critical after realignment. Providers in each county need to join together and ensure their country officials are supporting and funding the proper approaches and services.
Regrettably, I haven’t yet noticed much urgency on the part of many providers to develop a unified county policy agenda. Certainly some forward-looking agencies are sounding the alarm and attempting to rally others, but I worry that not enough are heeding the call. Working together in coalitions has many advantages, as described in the NCRP study.
These include a broader geographic reach which results in more direct, constituent relationships with elected officials, and a diversification and expansion of skills, contacts, knowledge, and capacities. Cliché or not, there truly are strength in numbers.
With the responsibility that has now been given to counties through realignment, they are now the keys to changing California’s child welfare system for the better.
One of my primary focuses in the coming year will be attempting to organize Los Angeles-area providers and advocates around common policy objectives with which we can engage county government. Similar efforts should be undertaken in other counties.
–Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer.
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