The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Exploring the Disconnect between Policy Makers and Service Providers How do we close the feedback loop that allows insights from the ground level make it back up the chain to policymakers?

Social service policymaking is an extraordinarily challenging process. The problems social services seek to address are dauntingly complex, and policy makers must often craft policy under the duress of too little time, too little information, and too few resources. 

The work of Associate Professor Mosley looks at how social workers can influence public policy making. Frequently the feedback loop is broken between the officials who make decisions about the policies and the agencies that are responsible for implementing the policies, she finds. She examines the services provided for people who are homeless and found a great variation in the ways in which local organizations participate in the collaborative governance organizations established by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mosley found that larger networks have a lot more capacity for advocacy, but having more staff support often leads to providers taking a step back. Smaller providers can feel lost in the system, she discovered. Social service agencies can increase their voices by participating in coalitions to advocate their positions, she says.

By Mark Sheehy

The result of that dynamic is that policies often sound good in the abstract, but in reality are either too ambitious, not ambitious enough, or simply don't reflect the real needs of the people they are meant to serve.

Policymaking would likely be more effective if the nonprofit social service providers who are obliged to implement the policies had a seat at the table, but for the most part, they are strikingly absent from the process, says SSA Associate Professor Jennifer Mosley.

"When government agencies that fund social services are also the primary providers of social services, ideally there is a feedback loop that allows insights from the ground level to make it back up the chain to policymakers," says Mosley. "But that feedback loop isn't always there because in many cases state and local governments have ceded the actual delivery of services to nonprofit social service providers. For instance, most states used to run their own child welfare services. Now those services are run almost entirely by private nonprofit providers."

Unfortunately, few individual providers have the staff, the resources, or the political clout to conduct substantial policy advocacy on their own, but many are participating in various kinds of coalitions to amplify their voices. Another way providers come together to influence policy is through participation in collaborative governance processes—forums in which providers work together with government agencies to share in resource allocation and policy decisions.

Mosley has been studying how collaborative governance networks can expand providers’ capacity to conduct policy advocacy and ensure that they and the people they serve have a voice in policymaking decisions.

Mosley's most recent research is studying how these trends have played out in the field of homeless services. In 1995, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development mandated that providers form collaborative governance organizations called Continuums of Care (CoCs) and submit a single application for HUD funding. HUD's goal was to streamline the funding application process and encourage local governments and provider agencies to coordinate the planning and delivery of services to the homeless. Because HUD didn’t mandate how the CoCs should be set up, they vary considerably in scope and organizational model. They range from one CoC covering the entire state of Montana to nine in northern Illinois alone. Some are their own nonprofit member organizations; others are run out of state, city, or county bureaucracy.

As part of her research, Mosley conducted a survey of all of the CoCs in the country. Roughly 75 percent, or 312, of the networks responded to the survey. Mosley separated the CoCs into four categories: 1) those that created meaningful opportunities for member organizations to get involved, 2) those that engaged in a significant amount of policy advocacy, 3) those that did both, and 4) those that did neither. She then looked for differences. She is currently following up with an in-depth study of 18 CoCs nationally that vary in important ways. "My goal," says Mosley, "is to better understand the attributes that lead some CoCs—and by extension, collaborative governance units generally—to the next level of stakeholder voice and inclusion."

Professor Mosley

Associate Professor Jennifer Mosley, who studies how well social service providers communicate with policy makers to influence the decisions they make, leads a discussion with doctoral student Meghan Jarpe about policies related to homelessness.

While Mosley is still collecting data, some clear trends are emerging. One is that capacity can be a double-edged sword. "Larger networks have a lot more capacity to be involved in advocacy, but having more staff support often leads to providers taking a step back," says Mosley.

Smaller providers can also feel lost within the CoCs. Having a way for all providers to have meaningful participation in the CoC is important, not only for accountability reasons but also to help the CoC operate better and better address homelessness. "It's like being a member of any other organization," says Mosley. "You want to feel like your voice is being heard."

Nancy Radner, AM '93, has firsthand knowledge of the collaborative governance process. She is the Chief Development Officer for the Primo Center for Women and Children and was formerly CEO of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit organization of homelessness service providers that ran Chicago's Continuum of Care. Her experience conforms to the trends Mosley is seeing in her research.

Nancy radner"The concept of Continuums of Care was a brilliant idea," says Radner. "They were first started under Andrew Cuomo when he was US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He thought like a community organizer and wanted to give local bodies control over how they spent resources. How well they've worked depends on the location. The challenge for any individual CoC is managing a diverse coalition of organizations that are led by different personalities, are pursuing different agendas, and have very different levels of funding and staff capacity. And even though HUD mandated that CoCs be created, they didn't provide any money for their administration. So it's easy for the larger, more well-resourced organizations—the ones with staff time to sit on committees—to drown out the voices of the smaller organizations."

According to Radner, two factors contributed to the early success of Chicago's CoC. "One is that we made an effort to get to know all the stakeholders and their specific interests. The other is that the National Alliance to End Homelessness came up with the idea that we should be focusing on ending homelessness rather than just managing it. That gave us a shared vision that let us get over the turf wars and focus on the policy. And it worked. We became the first major city to develop a plan to end homelessness that was ratified by the mayor."

evelyn diazThe experience of Evelyn Diaz, who earned her master's degree from SSA in 1998, also echoes what Mosley has been seeing in her research. In 2015, Diaz became president of Heartland Alliance, one of the world’s leading anti-poverty organizations. Prior to that, she led the City of Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services, where she was responsible for administering social service programs for over 300,000 Chicagoans in the areas of children, youth, homelessness, domestic violence, aging, workforce development, and human services.

"There's definitely a need for more of a provider voice in policymaking," says Diaz, "in no small part because there’s little, if any, policy coordination between federal, state, and local governments. And it's not like the administrators making that policy are poorly informed, but by and large they're elected officials or political appointees, so they have four years to show results. That creates a bias toward the newest and seemingly most innovative policy ideas and the easiest solutions to implement quickly, sometimes at the expense of ideas that are based in providers' experience and input."

Diaz has been particularly impressed by the way homeless organizations were able to coordinate their advocacy efforts. "The genius of their approach," says Diaz, "was they always had a plan going in, and each organization had a scripted role to play. Their goal was to reach a solution that would work for everyone. That level of coordination made their advocacy efforts very effective. Over the six years I was in city government, I saw them get funding for new programs that were more responsive, get funding reinstated that had been cut, and successfully weigh in on how the city's Point-in-Time Count (a census of homeless individuals) was conducted. Most recently, they worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to push for a special use of housing vouchers targeting family homelessness."

CoC chartBut Diaz has also seen limits to what even the most well-coordinated provider groups can do, and many of those limits again come down to lack of coordination between the government bodies they're trying to influence. "Access to decent jobs and affordable housing help move people out of homelessness. But housing policy, workforce development policy, and homelessness policy are established separately at the federal level. At the local level, they’re handled by different governmental departments that don't coordinate with each other. It's hard for providers to bridge that gap. You have to be relentless, and it doesn't always pay off if there is no incentive for departments to coordinate. The most effective thing is when there is some mandate like HUD’s CoCs that requires policy makers to pay attention to the impact of their policies on the people being served."

Other types of provider associations have had success doing policy advocacy, as well. Andrea Durbin, AM '93, is the chief executive officer of Illinois Collaboration on Youth, a statewide advocacy network for at-risk youth and their families. Her organization faces the same lack of coordination among government departments that Diaz identified, and the effects of that lack of coordination have been exacerbated by the budget impasse in Illinois. "Our providers serve kids who fall into foster care or the criminal justice system. We should be the system of last resort. But primary prevention programs have been tremendously strained by the state funding cuts, so more and more kids are falling through the cracks."

But state budget constraints haven't kept Durbin and her organization from having advocacy successes. "We've been part of a successful movement to reform the juvenile justice system,” says Durbin. "Due to the collective voice of advocates across the nation, ours included, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juveniles can't be sentenced to life without parole. Earlier this year, the Court ordered that juveniles sentenced before that ruling be given re-sentencing or parole hearings. We've also been able to reduce the automatic transfer of juveniles to adult prisons. Right now we're trying to ensure that young people aren't in shackles when they appear in court.

Andrea Durbin

Andrea Durbin, AM '93, CEO of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, says that coordination among advocacy groups has improved the lives of juveniles incarcerated in Illinois by providing services that keep youth out of jails.

"In 2005 we also helped establish a pilot program called Redeploy Illinois. We went to counties with the highest youth incarceration rates and partnered with the courts and community organizations to provide evidence-based services designed to keep kids at home and in school and out of detention centers. That program allowed Illinois to close two youth prisons and save over $60 million. It also reduced the recidivism rate by two-thirds, which is huge because it stops kids from spiraling into the adult correctional system," she says.

As budgetary pressures in Illinois and other states continue to force providers to do more with less, it's important that individual providers, provider coalitions, and collaborative governance networks alike continue to advocate for adequate funding as well as for policies that make the most effective use of the funds available. In fact, some organizations are already exploring the possibilities of cross-field collaboration and advocacy that would address social issues in a way that brings together stakeholders from multiple areas. "Cross-field collaboration will be an important part of successful advocacy in the future," says Mosley. "For instance, it doesn’t make sense to have organizations involved in substance abuse, mental health, and homelessness, be advocating in different policy silos. We need to look at ways of bringing providers in different fields together, and I'm already thinking of exploring that trend as part of my future research."