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Book Summary

Crocker, Jarle, William Potapchuck and William Schechter 1998. Systems Reform and Local Government: Improving Outcomes for Children, Families and Neighborhoods. Washington DC: Center for Community Problem Solving.

Local government reform can help communities achieve positive change in the lives of children and families. This paper offers ideas for local governments to spur citizen involvement in communities and neighborhoods. Change will come about for families only through community participation in local initiatives. They believe that government reform must not strive only to improve current services, but must also work to create linkages between services, as well as support systems.

Successful government reform can be achieved only through involving community stakeholders in defining neighborhood problems, listing goals and deriving and implementing solutions. The need for community participation requires the government to change its role in the community from that of a regulator and service provider to a partner and facilitator. Six types of government reform are essential to support families and create social capital: systems reform in human services, community development, community organizing, collaboration, reinventing government and community building. They believe that by instituting changes in these areas, government reform can strengthen democracy, redefine citizenship, strengthen the role of government and ultimately produce better outcomes for families, especially those in lower-income brackets.

A true reform of local government will affect all levels of government, be comprehensive, induce stakeholders through collaboration, and transform the nature of relationships within and throughout the community. At the broadest level, reform will promote community-wide change all the way down to inter-agency change. The authors suggest seven elements necessary in reaching the goal of transforming the structure of governments and the way they relate to their communities:

  • Seek comprehensiveness by addressing the whole set of problems and drawing on resources from multiple community groups
  • Synthesize and decentralize services by locating service delivery in neighborhood centers, encouraging citizen participation and capacity to make decisions
  • Employ results based tools by emphasizing results, accountability and performance
  • Streamline institutions to encourage efficient, flexible and flattened structures systems
  • Establish participatory and collaborative decision making by involving stakeholders in decision making, implementation, management and evaluation
  • Build institutional forums by creating new relationships among public, private and nonprofit partners
  • Create structures to support civic engagement with links to neighborhoods at all levels

While all of these elements are important, they stress how local governments can successfully reform by selecting and combining those initiatives that will work best for their case.

There are challenges to local governments seeking to reform. One difficulty with engaging a multiplicity of citizens is that they will have very different perspectives on problems and how to solve them. This requires the need for community building bringing citizens together, and while acknowledging their differences, building consensus about how to resolve public problems. Reforming local government in the setting of changing state and federal policy can be difficult. This requires constant dialogue not only with state and federal agencies, but also within the local government structure, assuring that employees understand reforms and are actively involved in the ever-changing process. Addressing taxpayers worries about where their money is going and what projects take precedence with scarce resources requires creativity and doing more with less.

Above all, local governments wishing to pursue systems reform must have a plan. They must start with research, analyzing what has worked (and failed) for cities similar to themselves. They need to assess what resources they have, what resources they need, and how to utilize them. Finally, it is most important to establish a network of links to other governments and agencies, for monetary and moral support.