In July 2013, I wrote a blog proposing a four-part framework for understanding if specific local organizations have the capacity to implement CED programs. How well does this framework hold up when actually used? We answer this question using interviews with 31 local partners, over the past two years around a single, federally-funded, locally-administered community program in North Carolina. About half have given up on running the program.
Was capacity the tipping point?
The discussion then and now is focused on the capacity of the local partner organizations themselves to implement a federally- or state-supported program rather than community capacity to support CED writ large. This focus grew out of years of evaluations across public programs conducted by the School of Government which highlighted barriers to success around functional capacity in one form or another, and it is in line with the effort of the SOG Development Financial Initiative (DFI). It was also a response to 2010 statements by the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities and the National Governor’s Association that the recession was a “wake-up” call to the structural problem of higher demand for services without the capacity to respond. The four-part capacity framework presented three years ago included infrastructure, equipment, personnel, and administration.
How does this framework hold up against current research in CED? Not so well, and not so bad. First, local government or non-profit organizational capacity to implement CED-specific programs is still not a major focus of academic research. Examples from CED and related programs were very specific, and more often than not, came from outside the U.S. The second answer is “well,” in that where it does take center stage, the findings are consistent in highlighting the need to address institutional capacity early for program success.
An excellent example of this diversity leading to consistency comes from an article on implementing drug abuse prevention programs. A successful program was implemented in the last decade in Stockholm and quickly expanded to 20 other cities. In-depth case studies of three of the cities showed two had dropped the program within a few years because of the local agencies’ inability to successfully implement and sustain the effort. The fact that diverse programs, across countries, hone in on the same institutional capacity issues is an indicator that local partner capacity is a fundamental intergovernmental program problem, and a potential concern for CED officers.
Most organizational theory literature deals with complex concepts of capacity, but almost always do so using large organizations with significant paid staff, systems, policies and structure. Yet these may not be the partners with which most communities work. Take for example the 2013 federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the focus of the research, which is offered in almost every county and larger urban area in North Carolina. Below is the breakdown of the different types of individual, local partner organizations in charge of community implementation (N=128). The majority (43%) were smaller, local religious organization such as the Word of Faith church and non-profits (30%) like the local Boys and Girls Club chapter.
How did the framework hold up when applied to the SFSP? The individual capacity problems or assets found in the 31 research interviews, as well as associated interviews of related programs, consistently gravitated to the strength or weakness in four areas — as mentioned three years ago, well-managed administration and adequate human resources were easily identified. The concept of available infrastructure overlapped sufficiently with equipment that these were combined. But that new, unanticipated capacity-type tracking with success or failure at these front-line organizations was financial strength.
Administrative capacity is the broadest category, but generally could be described as
the ability to manage planning, scheduling, coordination, logistics, contracts, information technology, notification, documentation, and reporting. It is the capacity to manage the other aspects that comprise financial, infrastructure and human resources. It includes the catch-all ‘paperwork’. The vast majority of cited local partner barriers to program implementation involved administrative burden.
Surprisingly, financial capacity was the second most important aspect of successfully running the programs in question. The summer program was run on a reimbursable basis and the local partner had to assume all financial risk. For example, a church had to be able to carry costs of running the program for several months and be able to assume the entire risk of loss of reimbursement if they or the volunteers running the meal sites made mistakes that violated guidelines. Some of the local partners that dropped the program did so because they simply could not risk the little financial capital they had.
Infrastructure capacity is rarely discussed in public administration or policy literature. It might be assumed as a sub-concept of financial capacity in that if there were sufficient available funds, infrastructure needs would be addressed. Yet infrastructure is key in a local partner’s ability to provide services. One interviewee in this research described the success of a local food promotion program resting with a vegetable slicer. In the school kitchen without one, the staff had to hand cut fresh carrots, and quickly reverted to pre-cut frozen carrots from a national supplier. In the kitchen with a slicer, the staff were happy to switch to produce purchased directly from a local farmer.
Human Resource Capacity
For human resource capacity, one might ask, do the current employees have room on their plate for this program? if the program relies on local volunteers, are there enough? Do they need to be trained, monitored or consistent? Are there available staff to manage the volunteers? In our research, one successful local model of the summer meal program hired a three-month full-time program coordinator with grant funds ($5,000), with additional donations for four part-time sub-coordinators (approximately $1000
each for the summer). In turn, to actually deliver the services, 1,600 volunteer slots at 2 hours per slot needed to be filled to run the program for approximately 10 weeks. Managing the volunteers’ schedules, training, and day-to-day needs took most of the paid coordinators’ time. Without the paid staff, it ishard to imagine any individual organization, including the supportive local government, would have had the HR capacity to run the program as needed.
This framework is exploratory and the interviews were focused on a single program. Yet, they revealed that regardless of the sophistication of the federal or state agency, the design of the program or the promotional efforts, if the programs rely on independently-supported, voluntary community-based partners, success boils down to getting the service to the clients or the clients to the service, and in that view, the most fundamental, simple capacity measures are the ones that matter.
Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member. Alex Vazquez, MPA, is co-author of the study described in this blog.