Can 'Talent Injection' Remake Social Services?

A foundation's experiment with providing experts to public agencies is showing promise as a way to make a big difference at a relatively modest cost.
by | November 28, 2012

One of the interesting, and perennial, disconnects in our complicated federal system is that state and local agencies rarely possess the serious policy offices that command significant resources--such as comprehensive data and skilled analysts--that federal agencies often have. Challenged to just get the job done, it is a rare state or local department that has a single person positioned to develop a broader perspective: how services are being delivered in other jurisdictions, where innovation is occurring, and what application such knowledge might have in day-to-day operations at home.

Ironically, it is the on-the-ground operation where the innovation is most needed, and where the theory of best practice meets the reality of execution. Often, innovation is attempted through demonstrations--frequently financed by well-intentioned federal agencies or philanthropic sources--that never move beyond the demonstration phase because of inherent barriers to scale. As I recounted in an earlier column, operations leaders must deal with the complex funding-displacement, workforce and resource issues associated with even a highly desired change. In a resource-constrained world, how can innovators provide the essential analytic spark?

If externally developed innovations are often unrealistic, and resources are rarely at hand internally to figure out what might work, an initiative being tested by the Stoneleigh Foundation might offer a promising approach available at relatively modest cost.

Stoneleigh is a small operating foundation, based in Philadelphia but active in sites across the country, that is dedicated to advancing social change in child welfare and juvenile justice. Having relatively limited resources, but wanting to have strategic impact in the public systems in these fields, it decided on a "talent-injection" strategy that is showing encouraging results.

Unlike many shared executive programs that offer talent from outside the field, Stoneleigh identifies content specialists who will be supported in fellowship positions alongside or inside public agencies seeking cross-system innovation in child welfare and juvenile justice. Examples include:

• Addressing barriers to successful reunification of children with parents returning home after incarceration through careful planning and modification of state and local policies that work against reunification.

• Creation of partnerships between cities and school districts to address policy and practice dysfunctions that led to high dropout rates among youngsters in the child-welfare system.

• Advancing the concept of "common justice"--alternatives to traditional court processes--that aims to address not only the needs of victims of crime but also the underlying forces of trauma that push youthful felons toward re-offending.

Cathy Weiss, the executive director of Stoneleigh, believes that the effectiveness of the fellows derives from the combination of "the commitment of government leadership with that of an individual who has the space and time to look at best practices and think long-term--a luxury many public officials do not have."

Seen from the public agencies' perspective, the fellows are more than smart people with ideas. They are selected for their experience relevant to the problems to be solved - for their authenticity and credibility to lead to solutions.

For example, one fellow who is working to help foster-care providers develop "father-friendliness" experienced the child-welfare system firsthand while growing up and has served as a government official and a social-services provider. Another, leading a cross-system group addressing barriers to academic achievement of children in foster care, has deep private-practice experience with children in the system and has studied the points of transition that are often highly disruptive. This fellow convinced two city systems to pilot trauma-informed training for providers of foster-care parents.

While the private funding of this effort is an attractive feature, public officials who seek a Stoneleigh fellow need to be well positioned to work across agency boundaries on projects that the public agencies have agreed need priority attention. The projects do not place the fellows "in" one agency, and the fellows' prior experience gives them fresh perspective that allows them to develop solutions that imagine the possibilities of cross-agency cooperation.

The Stoneleigh Foundation's resources are limited, supporting only a handful of fellows each year. However, the progress in public agencies thus far suggests that the model is worth examination by thoughtful public agencies and philanthropic entities wanting to achieve systemic change but limited by the resources and imagination at hand.

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