In cities across the country, mayors and city councils are being called on by protesters to slash police budgets and use those government dollars differently. By shifting vast public spending from police salaries, pensions, facilities, training and equipment to support for housing, education and health care, cities have an opportunity to transform themselves into more just and sustainable places. But both activists and government officials should be cautioned: Reallocating funds to build more responsive health and human services is not going to be a straightforward process.
Institutional racism is not found just in the police — it’s also woven into schools, mental health clinics and housing providers, though in ways that are hard to capture in a tweet. To address this, African American activists and public service professionals have long called for greater inclusion in the design and implementation of human services and more robust accountability to the communities being served. Their requests, however, often have been dismissed as politically motivated, and previous attempts at inclusion, such as during the War on Poverty, were dismantled when elites found their control over public resources threatened.
And yet, for this moment to be different — for governments to enact sustainable, positive changes to public services — officials must listen to those calls. Years of social science research have shown that for real, institutional change to happen the usual processes of oversight and decision-making must be interrupted and new forms of accountability established. Otherwise, even if police resources are shifted, we will continue to see racist outcomes — just from different city departments.
Public service accountability is key
The past 20 years have emphasized two types of public service accountability: fiscal discipline and standardizing “proven” programming. This has meant conceiving of public service organizations as competitive enterprises focused on efficiency, with funding tied to achieving performance metrics assumed to be equally relevant across diverse communities. This approach relies on the idea that the best forms of accountability lie in technical measurement, not collaboration with affected communities. This effectively reduces complex social processes to the frictionless universality of numbers.
We certainly agree that good stewardship of public dollars is important, and that systematic evidence is needed for understanding whether our public services are producing the outcomes we want. However, viewing public and nonprofit organizations as valuable only when they meet business-like indicators of success — such as cost savings and test scores — diminishes the other forms of accountability that these institutions owe to a democratic society. This includes progress toward equally important goals like community resilience and racial equity. An overreliance on business-like indicators also doesn’t work. Research has shown repeatedly that this approach can lead an organization to veer from its mission, turning away from critical work with the most vulnerable people in order to follow protocol or please remote funders.
To achieve anti-racist outcomes, we must reimagine public service accountability in ways that center the views of the people being served: people with housing needs, people who are unemployed, people in pain. Most current forms of accountability do not achieve this. They center the views of elite, predominantly white professionals who think they know how to improve marginalized communities, but whose relationship to those communities is often abstract. But the nature of institutional racism means that it cannot be dismantled by the people who have — even if unwittingly — benefited from it all their lives.
Fresh ideas, community collaboration can propel change
Young African Americans have been leading our wave of protests, and they are demanding bold action. They, and others who have had little say in how we provide public services, are offering a transformative vision. As the hard work of turning vision into governance proceeds, we must make sure these new voices remain at the forefront, especially when entrenched interests are threatened and fewer people are paying attention. How can we stay accountable to them?
Research is beginning to address this question of how public service organizations can put the unique knowledge of the individuals, families and communities they serve on an equal footing with financial metrics and performance indicators. For example, our “Knowledge Integration Initiative,” a collaboration with three other researchers, is seeking ways for public service organizations to value the knowledge of the people at the center of their work in the same way they value their quantitative management tools.
We know that those with more power in organizational settings are likely to get their way when it comes to making decisions. In public services, that means not only organizational leaders, but also external stakeholders with the most money and political clout. Doing things differently means reducing these power differentials in organizational decision-making and creating more collaborative processes where organizational learning can happen. Examples we’ve seen work include forming community councils with real control over budgets, ensuring that small community-based nonprofits are the ones leading collaborations with larger agencies and inviting community members to set democratically determined outcome measures — and being transparent about the results. Accountability to taxpayers need not be measured solely through financial management and performance metrics, but also through community well-being and human flourishing.
We must move away from criminalizing and over-policing African American communities. But building a more just and equitable public service system doesn’t mean just moving money around. It also requires reimagining whose expertise matters and how decisions get made. To end up in a different place, we must make different choices.
Nicole P. Marwell and Jennifer E. Mosley are associate professors in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Follow on Twitter: @jen_mosley
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Systemic racism goes beyond police. Reform human and social services