Putting the People Back in Policy and Practice
Poverty is a seemingly intractable problem. Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have been looking for solutions for decades now without a whole lot of success. It seems like we need some more help from the real experts -- the people who live in poverty.
Common sense, definitely. Common practice, not quite yet.
Much of our social service structure functions on submerged assumptions about the poor that have little or no mooring in actual client experience.
The CEO of a large food bank offered a great example of this at a recent conference. For years, his food bank had established rules for how many times a month clients could come for food. But, challenged by a new Feeding America initiative to put clients at the center of efforts to end hunger, he woke up one morning and realized, "Wow -- we never even asked any of the clients how long food lasted or how frequently they needed to come! How can we ever hope for our programs to alleviate hunger if we don't understand something that basic?"
The gold standard for understanding client perspectives generally relies on formal methodologies like surveys, administrative data analyses, focus groups, and key informant interviews, which can be tremendously effective ways to make sure diverse voices are heard.
The trouble is that, absent a large grant or contract, most nonprofits and local governments simply don't have the money to contract out this formal data collection to professionals with the kind of frequency or duration needed to really make a difference.
In light of these limitations, many organizations revert to informal methods and rely on staff to gather information about client experiences through everyday interactions. Unfortunately, this approach usually doesn't work very well for a number of reasons.
Clients who depend on staff to get their most basic needs met often don't feel safe or comfortable giving them direct feedback. Staff, wary of how they might be perceived by management, have little incentive to report negative or mixed reviews. Taking on the responsibility of data gathering on top of other core responsibilities can also be a substantial burden. And many of the staff who directly serve clients just don't have the sufficient training or expertise to be effective in this role.
In addition, both the formal and informal methods described here are mostly one-sided efforts. To genuinely learn from and collaborate with the people served by our poverty programs, we all need to think more about how to sustain a meaningful, ongoing, multidirectional dialogue.
For all these reasons, we need new, rigorous, low-cost, and respectful ways of creating feedback loops that will make our programs and systems more effective and ultimately improve the lives of people in poverty.
To this end, the Fund for Shared Insight, a new collaborative of multiple foundations, recently issued its first grants to practitioners, researchers, and foundations -- among them the Urban Institute and its partner Feeding America -- to pilot, test, and scale innovative ways to learn from low-income people, adapt our approaches to problems, and share back with clients how their insights make a difference.
These grants won't magically transform all our systems and programs. But they may be an important step toward creating a transformative culture that puts people at the center of policy and practice.
It's worth a try.
Molly M. Scott is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.