Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Piling on earmarks, still missing the point

Earmarks, be they at the level of the national government, or at the level of the local government in DC, are generally a bad thing, because they provide funds in a manner that typically is outside the setting of priorities and without adequate checks and balances.

What is lost in the arguments against earmarks is the point that it isn't bad, in and of itself, to provide funds to nonprofit organizations to do things in the realm of social services, arts, culture, youth services, commercial district and neighborhood improvement, etc., because many times neither the government nor the private sector is set up in a fashion that would direct the kind of attention necessary to address and solve particular and evident needs.

The real issue with earmarks is a failure to have an open transparent system for first setting priorities, and then tendering grant opportunities, and evaluating and funding proposals. Plus, it would be useful for having a training and development system for building the organizational capacity of nonprofit organizations and civil society generally.

People who know me know I have been making this point pretty consistently since around 2003-2004.

A recent piece in Stanford Social Innovation Review, "The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle," discusses the problems that nonprofits have in building capacity, because the basic costs of running and administering an organization are undercounted. From the article:

Our research reveals that a vicious cycle fuels the persistent underfunding of overhead.1 The first step in the cycle is funders’ unrealistic expectations about how much it costs to run a nonprofit. At the second step, nonprofits feel pressure to conform to funders’ unrealistic expectations. At the third step, nonprofits respond to this pressure in two ways: They spend too little on overhead, and they underreport their expenditures on tax forms and in fundraising materials. This underspending and underreporting in turn perpetuates funders’ unrealistic expectations. Over time, funders expect grantees to do more and more with less and less—a cycle that slowly starves nonprofits.

This is my experience in DC with the Main Street program. Groups never got enough money to be able to develop a sustainable funding stream. Even Barracks Row Main Street, which has received millions of dollars in earmarks (because many Congressmembers live over there) struggles to raise enough money to support fewer than 3 full-time staff. Note that Main Street wasn't an earmark program but a grant program with very difficult and regular reporting requirements, and three sets of benchmarks to be met annually. (I easily spent as much as 1/4 of my time working on reporting-related issues, when I worked as a program manager for the Brookland Main Street program.)

Anyway, yesterday, Washington Post columnist Colbert King piled on the earmark issue, tying it to the issue he writes the most about, the system of controlling, monitoring, and rehabilitating juvenile offenders. It's a system with many problems--that can result in the deaths of offenders released to in-community facilities, as well as murders and other crimes that get committed in the community by offenders who are inadequately monitored after having been placed into community facilities.

The problem with the column, "D.C.'s misdirected money," is that it is a logic failure of major proportions to make the point that the money was within a zero sum game, and that by having money directed to earmarks, money was diverted from dealing with juvenile offender issues. And that this claimed lack of money somehow led to all the problems and deaths within the system.

Note also that a few years ago, Colbert King wrote a similar column about earmarks, "Handouts and Hands Out," but in that case stated that all the money should go to the school system. Again, the issue isn't that there isn't enough money spent on K-12 schooling in DC. It's about how the school system is organized and managed, and the failure for many decades by the community to demand quality outcomes, instead of looking upon the school system as a feeding trough for jobs, patronage, and contracts.

The issue with juvenile offenders is how the city organizes and manages programs and services, including incarceration (albeit in many forms). It's not that there aren't programs. It's not that there isn't plenty of money.

Sadly, Colbert King hasn't taken up the mantle of promoting best practice programs dealing with juvenile offender issues, particularly murder of youth within the system as well as murder by youths "incarcerated" within the system. Why he isn't promoting the program developed in Boston, and featured in the Mother Jones Magazine article, "Straight Outta Boston" is beyond me.

Instead he keeps making the same points over and over again:

- The juvenile justice system is broken;
- Councilmember Wells provides inadequate oversight;
- Vince Schiraldi is too focused on rehabilitation to provide adequate supervision for people in the system who may in fact be very dangerous;
- people in the system die unnecessarily;
- other people in the city die unnecessarily at the hands of people who are supposed to be under the careful management of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

While King's coverage likely has resulted in Schiraldi moving on to New York City, it still brings to mind the joke of the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

It happens that I believe that it is fine to offer criticism without offering solutions (people who offer criticism are in turn usually pilloried for not offering solutions simultaneously) because understanding and being able to analyze problems can be a different skill from developing responsive programs to solve particular problems.

But I am finding the one-note writings somewhat tiresome, because the Post is an incredible platform from which to drive change forward, and the platform is being almost completely wasted by not acknowledging that there are decent solutions to be had and offering up these examples as solutions for our very serious problems in DC.

What the real problem in dealing with youth offender issues in DC comes down to a failure of will.

Not a lack of money.

And conflating the two doesn't move us forward.

Irrespective of problems (big problems) with the earmark system.

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