07/25/2012 | 3.5 mins |

An Old School Discussion of Social Sector Reform

07/25/2012 | 3.5 mins |

It was my privilege to speak and enjoy a convivial lunch last week with the members and assembled guests of the Sacramento Seminar. This venerable institution, a self-described 'political salon,' is made up of former state legislators, lobbyists, political consultants, attorneys and other civic leaders in the Bay Area. They have been convening each Friday for nearly thirty years now in a wood-paneled basement of an Italian restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. The speakers and topics vary, though they usually give members an opportunity to continue a running debate on their favorite topic, and something they know a good bit about: how to get things done in politics and government. I served up some red meat for them in this regard as I spoke on the opportunity and challenge of shifting public funding to support proven solutions for social problems. In the course of the subsequent discussion, made all the livelier by the freely flowing wine, I was struck by something they quickly zeroed in on—and by something that I did not hear.

While the Seminar members may not have been steeped in the particulars of scaling social innovation, it did not take them long to pinpoint the political obstacles involved. Their questions and observations correctly identified the constituencies and interests that would be opposed to redirecting government funding to invest more in what works-from fed-up taxpayers who simply want to shrink the size of government altogether to advocates for and providers of existing social programs with a stake in defending the status quo. Meanwhile, the ultimate constituencies for these changes, the disadvantaged children and families or isolated adults who stand to benefit, are not a force to be reckoned with politically, and in any case they are unlikely to be rallied by the promise of future benefits from public systems whose performance has not provided them with much reason for hope.

The political realism of my audience, grounded in their experience, reminded me again of the need to broaden the movement to advance what works beyond the smattering of federal officials, foundation leaders, good government advocates, and leaders of high performing nonprofits that currently form its vanguard. I don't know where the boundaries should ultimately lie, only that they need to be more expansive and inclusive than they are at present if it is going to have staying power.

I was also struck by what I did not hear in the course of our spirited discussion. There wasn't much at all in the way of partisan vituperation and moral outrage. To be sure, there are staunch Democrats and Republicans in the Sacramento Seminar (along with at least one gentleman who described himself as a "militant centrist"), and I could sense from the facial expressions and body language around the table just who tended to agree or disagree with the member who was speaking. But as I realized halfway through the lunch, trying to ascertain why I was finding the conversation so interesting, these people have agreed to disagree. Remarkable! And week in and week out they get together to break bread and grapple with how best to seek and use public office and to govern our diverse and maddeningly complicated state and society.

Leaders in the movement to advance what works will need to actively recruit and enlist practical people with this disposition, i.e., political and legislative craftsmen from both parties, in order to realize their ambitious objectives. In this regard I am reminded of Sam Rayburn's remark to his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, after the Vice President told the Speaker how impressed he was with the policy experts and technocrats that had come to work in the Kennedy White House. "They may be just as intelligent as you say," Rayburn told Johnson, "but I'd feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff." I came away from my meeting with the Sacramento Seminar realizing that we need more people who have run for sheriff or like offices bringing their particular expertise to bear in the effort to reallocate public funding to support tested solutions for our social problems.

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