DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

The worlds of Program Directors and Advocates often intertwine, as the later are often hired to serve as the former.  Even though Advocates typically want programs to be expansive, open ended, and systemically transformative while Program Directors can only survive by limiting their span of accountability, both groups have an interest in program success.

From an advocacy perspective, there are three high level strategic goals: creating political will, developing technical capacity in operational agencies, and preventing a backlash by mobilizing public support for the new developments.  While program people are often public employees or are otherwise constrained to play a less explicitly political role than advocates, it should not be surprising that a similar set of concerns face program designers, developers, and managers.  From their perspective the key to creating a sustainable, impactful, and successful program involves:

  • Paying Attention to Context-Shaping Strategies
  • Activating Interested Constituencies and Stakeholders
  • Raising the Technical Capacity of Operational Staff
  • Coordinating Activity Among Separate Offices and Agencies
  • Including Enough Quick and Visible Improvements to Justify Continuation

The complicated constraints of public agencies make it difficult to design, develop, and manage programs and projects that successfully address these strategic challenges.  Still, it can be done, although doing so might push public leaders to the edge of their comfort zone. 

Paying Attention to Context-Shaping Strategies

Most programs are service-oriented, focusing on providing particular types of assistance to particular individuals or groups.  We provide medical services for people lacking insurance, rental assistance and food stamps for low-income families.  The underlying assumption is that our various systems are generally working well so the priority need is to help those who, for some reason, are unable to include themselves.

But there is enough evidence that many of our systems are inherently flawed, if only by virtue of the rationing they impose based on income and wealth as well as geography, disability, and other factors.  It is vital to provide direct services, to heal the visible hurt while supporting individual change with counseling and education.  However, the most successful programs also try to reform the surrounding system through changes in policy, operations, financial incentives, built environment infrastructure such as roads and buildings, etc.  The goal is to not only change the way the system works, but also to change the “decision-making context” that shapes individual behaviors – changing the “default options” that guide us through our daily routines.  National or regional advocacy groups are often more in touch with state-of-the-art developments than agency staff – which is a good reason to involve them in the conceptual stages of program planning.

In transportation, create new defaults requires changing infrastructure: prioritizing spending on facilities for walking, cycling, and public transit.  We need, for example, to create new incentives that favor small, high mpg, non-polluting vehicles – or the decision to not have a car at all.  We need separated-from-traffic cycle tracks that “ordinary people” feel comfortable using.  We need to redo our zoning and building codes to encourage mixed-use neighborhoods located within walking distance of transit hubs.

Changing the decision-making context also includes dealing with media, and the most transformative programs have a cultural component and a media strategy dealing with both traditional and new social formats.  This is very different than the PR work that is so frequently criticized by budget cutters and self-righteous journalists.  We need “science briefings” that explain the evidence behind a program with the goal of increasing the media’s level of understanding of the issues being addressed and the strategies being tried – which, contrary to being a spin-job, may even give the media a more sophisticated ability to hold the program accountable.


Activating Interested Constituencies and Stakeholders

Friends who work in retail say that their work environment would be great if it weren’t for all the annoying customers.  And Program Directors sometimes (legitimately!) feel that they’d be able to accomplish a lot more if it weren’t for all the public meetings and distracting (if not insulting) demands for attention from elected officials and angry citizens that they have to deal with.   Sometimes we all envy the Chinese system where the government decides that high speed rail needs to be built or alternative energy sources need to be developed or public health needs to be attended to…and it gets done – or else!

Enrique Penálosa, former Mayor of Bogotá famous for his implementation of Bus Rapid Transit and Cyclovia programs, has said that Latin American leaders can get things done faster than in the US because of their greater authority, but their successors are just as able to undo it all.  In the US, he says, while our process is much slower, once something is implemented it is more likely to remain in place.

Not only do program developers and managers need to embrace the public process, no matter how time consuming, they need to see Advocates as their friends – no matter how pushy their arguments.  Program staff who are trying to create effective programs in a time of fiscal constraints and anti-government agitation need to avoid finding themselves all alone far out on an unconventional limb.  It’s always good to have someone, or a group, arguing for a bigger and more transformative program than you’ve been asked to create, preferably with a bigger budget than you have been given.  As Congressman Allard Lowenstein once said during the anti-Vietnam War protests, it is always good to have someone around who is more radical and pushy than yourself, making you look moderate in comparison.

However, once in operation, long-term program sustainability requires building a local constituency that will push for its completion and continuation, preferably a constituency committed to the larger issue that the program seeks to address.  So good program design creates opportunities and structures that allow local supporters to step out of the silent majority, get engaged, and have a voice.  Program developers need to empower supporters at two levels:  as program Advisors and as program users.

Typically, Advisory Committees are used to give the full range of stakeholders a chance to be heard so that conflicts can be worked out before they threaten the program’s existence.  In addition, Advisory Committees are often used to recognize a community’s diversity, even if not all population sectors are involved in the program.

But it is also possible to conceive of an Advisory Committee that has a more advocacy role – perhaps by creating it as an independent body.  Programs to deal with food availability or other nutritional issues should require participating municipalities to create a Food Policy Council with a majority membership of citizen volunteers.  Programs to deal with upgrading transportation systems should require participating municipalities to create a volunteer Bikeability Advisory Committee and/or a Walkability Advisory Committee.  Programs to deal with childhood obesity should require participating municipalities to create parent-led Safe Routes To School Committees for each school.  These unpaid committees should be empowered to review appropriate plans and programs, raise questions and get answers from appropriate public staff or leaders, but not to veto or even delay program implementation.  While these committees should be broadly representative of the population’s diversity, it is even more important that they are full of passionate supporters of aggressive action. And once involved, the members of these committees should be given opportunities – perhaps through Program subcontracts with Advocacy groups – to get training, network with similar groups in other municipalities, and gather together on a regional or state-wide basis to become aware of both their numbers and their potential influence.

The second needed level of empowering constituency aggregation is the creation of spin-off “user groups” – walking clubs, bike clubs, cooking clubs, sports clubs.  Even though these types of groups seldom get involved in high-level policy, their existence creates a structure that gives participants visibility and therefore self-awareness and power.


Raising the Technical Capacity of Operational Staff

The more innovative and transformative the program, the more likely that it requires skills or experience not widely held by agency staff.  It’s a mark of respect for your own people to include opportunities to expand their skill set and to budget in opportunities for them to learn from other pioneers.  Great programs always include some amount of training and consulting even, perhaps, provided by Advocacy groups.

It is common these days, at the state, country, or regional level, to design programs that are mainly implemented at the local or municipal level – passing through federal or foundation funds to the “people closest to the problem.”  But, again, the ability of local staffs to deal with the full dimensions of the issue should not be taken for granted.  Successful programs build in technical assistance services for local groups, perhaps (again) provided by Advocacy groups.  In fact, providing expertise around issue analysis, program design, grant writing, implementation, and evaluation may be the most valuable thing that state agencies can provide (other than money, of course).

Program designers also need to remember that very different kinds of technical assistance are required by local professional staff and by volunteer citizen boards which are often filled by people with limited time to stay abreast of new research or practices.  Municipal professional staffs sometimes feel they are being held back by the out-of-date perspectives (and sometimes the self-interests, friendship obligations, and personality issues) of supervising board members.  Incorporating ways for Board members to become aware of positive developments in other communities or countries can pay large dividends when innovation is tried at home.


Coordinating Activity Among Separate Offices and Agencies

Even town-level governments and small public agencies are a jigsaw puzzle of moving pieces.  Often, the most valuable help that a large-scale federal, state, or county-level program can provide to local administrators is money for an inter-office coordinator with authority to bring separate departments together to synchronize the dozens of components needed to develop local plans and implement successful programs.

Sometimes, the need for internal coordination is even greater at the state or regional level.  One department in the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, for example, was recently spending money planning a rail trail while another department was arranging to sell the land to private developers.  And, in many cases, inter-agency coordination is an even bigger problem.  It makes no sense to have Public Health working to increase physical activity while Highway is approving sidewalk-lacking road designs.

This latter situation is an example of the need for coordination both on the tactical and strategic levels.  Not only is it necessary to ensure that all parts of an agency, or parts of multiple agencies, work together to design, implement, and evaluate programs.  It is just as important that they are all working, in every part of every program, towards the same high level goals.

It is true that the public sector is inevitably plagued by the political need to satisfy different, sometimes even antagonistic, interests.  And it takes a truly great leader to find a way to coherently keep all the pieces together.  But, when it happens, the benefits are immense.


Including Enough Quick and Visible Improvements to Justify Continuation 

Budgets are tight.  And until our society decides that it is once-again willing to increase taxes on those most able to pay, the fiscal situation isn’t likely to get any better.  Even if a program is fortunate enough to get funded in the first place, it needs to create enough public support to get renewed.

Unfortunately, projects seeking to transform the decision-making contexts of policy or the built environment take a long time to show results.  A full schedule of announcements, events, and other “symbolic gestures” can help fill the gap by making it clear that public leaders support the vision and by making people aware that more is coming.  But, as soon as possible, it is also important to presage future improvements using low-cost, suggestive tools – for example:  changing road layouts with planters, bollards, and paint rather than by moving curbs.

State programs being implemented through local agencies need to be particularly aggressive about this – and find ways to incentivize this type of activity.  The more decentralized a program’s implementation, the more valuable it is to include a “mini-grant demonstration fund” as part of its design.  The grant criteria should make it clear that its primary role is to allow local groups or municipalities to create illustrative pilots.

Of course, the goal of transformative programs is to make fundamental changes.  As program directors know, changing policies requires staff- and time-intensive slow work.  Building new roads or even fixing intersections is expensive and even slower.  But symbolic gestures and quick improvements can create the political momentum, and ensure the continued budget approvals, that allow the long-term goals to be realized.

Related Posts:

What Transportation And Public Health Can Learn From Each Other About Changing Public Behaviors

ADVOCACY:  Weaving Together Protest & Partnership 

THE THREE LEGS OF A HEALTHY BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

Picking Transportation Spending Priorities


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