05/01/2012 | 4 mins |

Government's Role in the Social Services Industrial Complex

05/01/2012 | 4 mins |

Let me start by thanking everyone who read and commented, blogged, posted, or tweeted about my article in last week's Washington Post, "The Social Services Industrial Complex". The engagement on multiple fronts has been terrific, from people who agree and those who see things differently. I'd like to take up one issue that merits some further discussion-the role that legislative and administrative bodies within government play in perpetuating this complex and the resulting inertia in policy and funding flows.

In a post last week on his great new blog, Driving Social Impact, Patrick Lester doubted whether the notion of a social services industrial complex is all that helpful given that "social services organizations really are not that powerful." Don't get me wrong; relative to the role played by defense contractors in the military industrial complex, I agree with him. But does the social services industrial complex have the heft to preserve funding for programs and providers that aren't demonstrating results? Absolutely.

This is in large part because, once funding starts flowing through legislative committees and administrative agencies to organizations in the field to carry out a particular social policy, all the participants-inside government and out-tend to have a vested interest in sustaining the influence and power that flows along with the money. It is this combination that gives the complex its political juice, which can surprise even experienced political hands.

For example, last year we spoke with a state health and human services administrator who reflected on his experience in trying to reform child welfare as the final achievement in a high-impact career in public service across multiple states. Mounting evidence had persuaded him that it is both more effective and efficient to support foster youth whenever possible in community- and home-based programs rather than paying for more traditional and expensive residential treatment. But when he tried to redirect his state's policies and funding flows, he ran into a buzz saw of opposition from nonprofit defenders of the status quo and their allies in the state house. "The old crowd is politically powerful," he noted, "They were fighting tooth and nail for every penny they could get. Our approach was a direct threat to them, and they were able to work their contacts in the legislature like nobody's business to oppose what we were trying to do."

Last week David Brooks coincidentally underscored another way in which government works to reinforce the social services industrial complex in a New York Times column entitled,"Is Our Adults Learning?" Riffing off of Jim Manzi's book, Uncontrolled: The Surprising Pay-off of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics and Society, Brooks notes that-in contrast to the almost incessant use of controlled trials by many businesses to learn and improve-"government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on. Why doesn't government want to learn?" Brooks cites the lack of infrastructure to do these trials (not sure I buy it), and the sheer scale and complexity of many government policies (he's getting warmer). He then goes on to observe that controlled trials typically reveal that "the vast majority of new proposals do not work, and those that do work only do so to a limited extent and only under certain circumstances. This is true in business and government. Politicians are not inclined to set up rigorous testing methods showing that their favorite ideas don't work." (Bingo!) Brooks might have gone on to add, per the examples I cited from Jon Baron and Isabel Sawhill, that when a rigorous trial actually is done and shows "weak or no positive effects" for the social program in question, elected officials aren't inclined to stop funding it.

It is not just the infrequent and unheeded evaluations that perpetuate the social services industrial complex, but also the myriad day-to-day-and frequently irrelevant-measures government funders ask nonprofits to report. Performance measurement thereby becomes a compliance exercise in accounting for inputs and outputs rather than a sustained and invigorating drive to realize meaningful outcomes and positively impact lives and communities.

Mario Marino took this problem head-on in a hard-hitting speech to the venerable City Club of Cleveland last week, noting that, "in too many interactions with nonprofits and government agencies, I see signs that they aren't taking a hard look in the mirror and asking whether they are focused on the right things, measuring the right things, and doing the right things for those they serve. Far too many settle for mediocrity." But this was just the opening of a sustained salvo. In winding up for his call to action in this must-read document, Marino insisted that his well-heeled audience of civic and business leaders start "taking on the very challenging task of pushing for public policies that pay for good outcomes rather than just paying for activities…to speak up on behalf of allocating funding based on merit and reason - not on blind loyalty or faith. He concluded by exhorting nonprofit leaders and public sector officials alike to "summon the courage to seek high performance. Banish the many good excuses. Make it a matter of pride to take this leap. Forget your damned funders. Do it for yourself."

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