The Short Answer
- (a) Build on existing forums: collaboratives, children’s cabinets, coalitions, family and child advocacy organizations and United Ways or similar convening organizations.
- (b) Create tables where people can work on what they are passionate about. Use the results framework to keep these processes disciplined. And make sure they get from talk to action quickly.
- (a) The well-being of children and families is often a area of non-partisan common ground. Use this to leverage joint sponsorship of the creation of collaborative and oversight structures, the creation of Children’s report cards and other tools, and the use of results and performance measures in budgeting.
- (b) Accountability for results is powerful rhetoric. Call the question and use it for real change. Be smart about creating a win-win visible success and building on it.
Part 1: Organizational considerations: In many places there are already natural forums where work on results for children and families is or can be lodged. These include:
(1) Children’s collaboratives: These usually include public and private sector partners in formal structure established in state or local law (See Cal 997 councils, etc.)
(2) Children’s cabinets: These are usually governmental entities made up of the “cabinet” level officers responsible for major departments with services for children and families (including: social services, health, mental health, education, juvenile justice). Education may or may not be a part of such cabinets depending on the political relationship (organizational and personal) of the Super indent to the rest of state, county or city government. (See Maryland and Contra Costa County)
(3) Children’s coalitions: These are usually less formal alliances of advocacy organizations which may or may not include public sector partners. (See Philadelphia Coalition for Kids which produced “Report Card 2000: The Well-Being of Children and Youth in Philadelphia”)
(4)Individual Family and Child advocacy organizations: In some states, counties and cities there is one or more advocacy organizations which can sponsor the work. (See California Children’s Advocacy Institute which produced the “California Children’s Budget Data Report” series, or Family Action of Sonoma County. )
(5) United Way or similar “neutral” organization: United Ways have been central to the organization of Results-Based Accountability efforts for children and families (and other populations such as the elderly) in many counties and cities across the country. Because United Ways often undertake strategic planning efforts spanning the community they are natural sponsors of the development and use of results, indicators, report cards etc. Examples of United Ways taking leadership roles in Results-Based Accountability include the United Way of Santa Cruz California, the United Way of Indianapolis, Indiana, the Lehigh Valley United Way in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, the Metro United Way in Louisville, Kentucky, the United Way and Community Chest of Cincinnati, Ohio, the Aloha United Way in Honolulu, and others.
It is rare to find a county or city without one or more of these kinds of organizational platforms in place. It is almost always best to use one of these (or preferably all of these) as the sponsors of the work.
An interesting dilemma lies in the question: Is it better for this work to lie inside or outside of government? My view is that the work will have the greatest long lasting effect if it is recognized or sanctioned by state, county and city governments. The intent of Results-Based Accountability is to move decision makers to invest in strategies that will measurably improve the well-being of children and families. Many of the most important investment decisions lie in the public sector budget and political processes. And government use of these planning tools and techniques will more likely lead to influence of the significant dollars already spent on children and family services. (As of 2001: Inside government – see Contra Costa County; Outside government see Sonoma County.)
There are several important reasons why government budget offices should develop Family and Children’s budgets. First is credibility. Second, a children’s budget developed “inside” the budget process has a greater chance of influencing the budget while it is still under development.
Part 2: Political considerations:
(1) The power of children and families issues: The well-being of children and families is often an area of political common ground. For this reason it is sometimes possible to make progress on Results-Based Accountability without the usual political wrangling. This means that actions to sponsor the creation of a children’s council, the authorization of a children’s budget, or hearings on specific results may be taken with bi-partisan support.
(2) The power of accountability: It always sounds like good stewardship to press for accountability through the business like use of data.
(a) This can work for population well-being (all children, all families etc.) but is much less often seen there. This is partly or mostly because there is no single entity to “hold accountable.” It must therefore take the form of a series of questions: “How are WE doing for children and families in this state/county/city? How can WE do better?” The political energy for this work can sometimes be garnered from the “embarrassment factor.” Is the state/county/city doing worse than comparable jurisdictions? Are there some numbers (like reading scores or juvenile violent crime) that are in the media and can be used as jumping off points?
(b) Performance measurement, on the other hand is much more straightforward. Is the bureaucracy performing as it should? Few can argue with the need to test performance of programs and agencies and hold the managers of those programs and agencies accountable. The trick is to find a useful version of this process. Most past performance accountability processes have been paper exercises that are rightly ignored in both the executive and legislative branches. The point of greatest leverage is of course the budget process. And the logical starting point is to use this as a platform to test the use performance data to inform decisions. Pick a process that can start small, prove its utility and then be brought to scale.
(2) Political capital, reelection and the chances of success: The chance of success is probably the key political consideration. Success, in political terms, means some tangible accomplishment which gets good publicity, builds political capital and helps with reelection. With term limits, this often means that some tangible accomplishment must be produced in a fairly short period. Program performance improvements can be produced relatively quickly – another reason why this is the easier thing to do. Population well-being takes a lot longer to turn around. How can the need for short term success be squared with the long term nature of progress on population indicators? It is often possible to use the concept of “investing” in children and families, and the plausible effects on later health and safety as the bridge. Other tangible accomplishments include report cards, results hearings in the area of child population well-being. Attached is a list of 11 things a legislature could consider doing to advance Results-Based Accountability.
Another political consideration when using population or performance data is that the data may not “look good.” Someone must therefore be at fault. If data is not improved over the course of a given term, that fault may boomerang. By some calculations it is better not to look at the data than to take the political risk of being blamed for the data. The high visibility response to this involves courage and the use of political capital. A lower visibility route may make sense in highly volatile political environments. The use of bi-partisan or non-partisan approaches may also help defuse political risk. The bottom line is that political leaders have a political stake in the well-being of children and families. Most are genuinely interested in progress, both short and long term, and are willing to support sensible actions to advance well-being. The politics of that progress can usually be managed if the problems are seen as “no-ones fault” and the credit for success is shared among the many partners who contributed.