Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reframing Social policy approaches through a Systems lens

Today I heard someone talk about evidence based decision making in the context of solving social problems. More frequently we hear this term with respect to medicine, in fact Dr. Atul Gawande has widened the understanding of this approach to medical care through his writings. The idea is simple, and uses randomized, controlled studies to evaluate the validity and reliability of clinical research. The best medicine to practice leans heavily on repeatable research that demonstrates its effectiveness. In short, treatment decisions are determined by results proven in multiple settings. Unlike best practices, evidence based decisions should deliver the same results in different settings and establish clearer paths to success. But how can it work on a social problem where it's almost impossible to undertake randomized controlled studies?

Social capital may be the critical ingredient. This vogue term and associated ideas are interspersed with attempts to value social networks and social media's impact. No matter which end of society we occupy, we tend to share a common conception that fundamentally things need fixing. The evidence of what doesn't work in the social sector is often more significant than the public can bear. The Tea Party is not the only one drawing lines in the sand and exclaiming that it's time to stop spending money for things that don't work. We lack clear repeatable evidence to support continuing various entitlement programs will solve the problems they were created to address, then again not funding them may make things that much worse. The growing pressure on public schools and anger about the pensions of public employees is in part a reaction to the fact that not a single school urban school system is a shining success.

Is it because we have set the bar too high? Or best practices don't seem to scale? Or worse, clear repeatable evidence has not been found? Though we know that those who finish school and continue through a post secondary education earn higher wages, that's not the metric for school success being used. The measures often in place are often as transitory as our annual budget commitments . Sure, teachers should be held accountable for the time and materials they share with their students.  But if you want schooling to have impact, the Cradle to College Evidence Based Research demonstrated by Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children's Zone  suggests it takes far more to help the child be ready and able to learn from the teacher. The heavy use of evaluation outcomes by most non-profits and increasingly demanded by funders may be similar in rigor but lack the randomized control aspects  of evidence based practices.  Both further the commitment to build on what  really works. Sadly, it's a difficult model to transport and costly to scale, because it addresses a host of factors that are ancillary but entwined with the system of care that helps a child reap the benefits delivered by quality instruction. Using social capital to create the interconnections and cast the net of evidence capture the effects across a wider support system of services appears to literally lift those born into poverty out and offer them a better future.

Promise neighborhoods hopes to extend the success of the Harlem Children's zone and  is part of another growing movement, perhaps less visible and probably less vocal than the Tea Party. It shares some of the features of open source systems, where individuals contribute what they can, when they can and the benefits are shared by everyone. If you have not yet heard or sampled Wikipedia I suggest you take a moment to experience what collective intelligence looks like, what its capable of producing. Is there a clear metric of success? No, rather it's an evolving work. the success is its sustainability and the anchor it has established to support a generation who never experienced an encyclopedia created by "experts." and scholars.
The movement is literally a convergence of cross-sector partners whose individual strengths focus on a shared objective to create collective impact. This is not a zero-sum game but rather an effort to leverage the government's ability to bring together all the system players. Collective Impact borrows from collaboration to create large scale, long term systemic change. Using a common frame and vocabulary individual organizations from academic, business, and philanthropy sectors align their strengths to make a system run better not merely help an individual organization or element within the community succeed.

Today, I tuned into a webcast conference organized by FSG and Stanford Center for Social Innovation Review. The conference entitled Creating Large Scale change examined the phenomenon of Collective Impact and encouraged funders and nonprofits who attended to change their thinking and consider a new paradigm for effecting social change. In my own community of Chicago I'm familiar with the public private partnerships that have long operated in our region to address various issues such as transportation or growth as envisioned by the Burnham Plan. The longstanding recognition of the role of social capital to both sustain and support projects that improve the city reflects the values shared by philanthropy, city government and business.

The efforts of Mayor Daley to extend the planning and visions to make Chicago a green city, promote and build tourism and the city's diverse cultural heritage shyould not be overlooked. But I'm wondering about the possibilities and potential that a different configuration and investment commitment might be able to deliver.
Chicago is the recipient of one of 13 Social Innovation grants that are supporting the commitment to a more system organized approach to community development in 12 community areas that are supported by LISC, the Low Income Support Coalition. What system opportunities might be able to address the issue of crime in certain neighborhoods with disproportionate population of ex-offenders , joblessness, addiction and poor graduation rates. The array of support program and services that trickle down from the federal government into different nonprofit organizations are often compromised rather than providing synergy to change the system. Mounting evidence from academic research, yes the evidence based decision making exists. With leadership and long term commitment perhaps some willing partners will commit to the long term. LISC is a good model and the investment by MacArthur and other partners are now beginning to show promise, furthering the capabilities and building capacity of lead community organizations in these communities to have high quality impact on the residents. There are other signs and other funders who are encouraged to also enter into these long standing commitments and together they may be able to not only change the paradigm but also begin to change the system.

FSG and Stanford hope to make the conference available as a pod cast; but a good place to start might be with Mark Kramer's paper posted here:
Collective Impact (February 15, 2011) | Stanford Social Innovation Review

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