Author:Berner, Maureen

Current proposals to devolve some federal programs, like the suggestion to block grant Medicaid to states, suggest local partners--such as local governments, school districts, and non-profits--will continue to play a significant role in federal social program delivery. Will they be able to meet the challenge? Prior capacity research points broadly to the importance of leadership and resources in how well organizations function. Implementation research has examined the capacity of organizations to use best or evidence-based practices, primarily in the health field. However, as discussed below, literature on the capacity to implement programs, especially involving smaller, volunteer-based non-profits or street-level local government-run operations is more limited. This is striking in light of years of fiscal stress at the local level combined with increasing calls for better program monitoring, reporting, and accountability (Perlman, 2009; Warner, 2010). With tens of thousands of relatively small local governments (United States Census Bureau, 2018) and over 1.6 million, mostly local, non-profits (National Center for Charitable Statistics, 2016), public administrators from the federal level down need to understand the capacity of these local organizations to provide direct services.

The purpose of this study is three-fold: (a) to explore the general applicability of prior capacity research to local governments, school districts, and non-profits that are often the ground-level implementors of federal policy; (b) to explore which capacity issues serve as the most important to successful program implementation in these organizations; and, (c) to understand the 'tipping' point at which local partners decide they no longer have the ability to implement federal programs.

We approach the stated research goals above by conducting in-depth interviews on organizational capacity with two groups of local partners of a federal food assistance program--those who started to offer the program and continued and those who started but ultimately chose to stop implementing the program. Identifying the 'tipping' point between the two groups can contribute to our understanding of the role and import organizational capacity plays in a local partner's decision and ability to implement policy. Successful identification of key capacity issues can give policymakers the ability to design programs with appropriate capacity factors in mind or, where programs exist but struggle to meet programmatic goals, justification to target resources to build capacity in local partners. For researchers, we expand prior work on organizational capacity by exploring its applicability in a new context--focusing on street-level partners across multiple sectors and their ability to implement devolved programs.


Organizational capacity discussions have their roots in organizational theory, the multidisciplinary field that seeks knowledge of behavior in organizational settings, public and private, by systematically studying individual, group, and organizational processes (Greenberg, 2005). Extensive research has been done on these three, far beyond our ability to summarize here, yet it is clear the concept of capacity has a strong foundation in work on organizations' human resources systems, networks, management practices and ability to meet their overall mission (Selden & Sowa, 2004; Jurie, 2000; Weber, 2008). On the government side, a flood of research has followed a continuing pattern of organizing, reorganizing, reforming, and striving to improve agencies' capacity to manage and perform (Keyes, Schwartz, Vidal & Bratt, 1996; Kettl, 2002, 2009; Kickert, 2007; Light, 1997, 2000; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). However, the majority of work is done within a federal framework at a larger organizational level (Lenz, 1981; Hou, Moynihan & Ingraham, 2003).

In the public sector, organizational capacity has been broadly defined to the point of disarray, as described over 35 years ago by Gargan (1981). To highlight just a few examples of capacity research, Chaskin (2001) and Schwartz, Bratt, Vidal & Keyes (1996) offer a definition of organizational capacity which includes the existence of resources, networks, and leadership that promote success. In a national study of community development corporations, Glickman & Servon (1998) use resources, organizational factors such as leadership, externally helping networks, specialized skills, and political resources. In the end, capacity can be thought of in two ways: government's ability to control its resources, including financial, physical, and human in general (Ingraham, Joyce, & Donahue, 2003), or as the policies and processes that enable an organization to fulfill its espoused mission (Jurie, 2000).

However, with some recent exceptions (Feldman, Hadjimichael, Lanahan, & Kemeny, 2016; Blank, 2015), capacity is not necessarily recognized or valued in practice. Choueiki (2016) suggests most efforts to improve policy focus on broad questions of design instead of considering poor delivery. Assessments of federal programs often hone in on outcomes, inevitably ignoring organization variables, such as capacity, that impact the quality of implementation and practices (Honadle, 1981; Chaskin, 2001, Mintrop & Sunderman, 2009). In addition, an organization's capacity profile--usually something that serves just as a checklist--does little to indicate organizational effectiveness (Timar, 1994). We are moving in the right direction, but with a few exceptions noted here, the public administration field has not moved enough to specifics that can translate to practitioners or be scaled broadly. There is also not a significant focus on local level partners. Perhaps most importantly, we have not answered the question of what is sufficient capacity to function, let alone succeed.

Our focus here is on the use of these ideas at the local, service-delivery point, where ultimately a program succeeds or fails, and Jreisat (2012) is probably the most helpful in that regard. He argues capacity is imperative for effective performance of governance at all levels, and provides an overview of what the literature in general has defined as the main components, including the financial process, human resources, information technology, managing with facts and data (performance management), public support of and trust in governance, measurement of results, and leadership.

While Jreisat lays out the local approach broadly, Eisinger (2002) is a key figure in identifying the importance of local context to the organizational capacity discussion. He argues capacity is critical for street-level charitable organizations as they are increasingly involved as partners with government in the provision of social services, but they operate in tumultuous environments where resources are scarce, labor is overwhelmingly volunteer, and demands are high. He describes capacity as a set of attributes assumed to impact organizational effectiveness, and includes competence, adaptability, durability, and institutionalization. Eisinger's work is a wonderful example of the importance of the local focus. It offers a study of food programs in the Detroit area in order to develop a capacity profile and empirically connect capacity to mission fulfillment. He found that the presence of a paid staff person and the computerization of records are the attributes of capacity that bear on mission fulfillment most. Eisinger also found that institutionalization and technical assistance from other organizations do little to increase organizational effectiveness; rather, the ability to successfully run a program depended on internal practical resources. Eisinger's work is where the broad concepts turn into useful advice.

In line with Eisinger, Christensen & Gazley (2008) offer a capacity framework that is directly relevant to building capacity for the execution of federal initiatives, such as the program examined here. They argue most capacity building efforts suffer from a lack of conceptual precision. In response, Christensen and Gazley's framework includes four elements: definitional characteristics, administrative practices, institutions, and organizational requirements. They also point to the importance of local context to program design. Finally, two of the more insightful and direct discussions of local level capacity and how it is addressed in policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation is by Reddy & Kauzya (2015), who argue capacity development ideas have moved beyond individual skill development to organizational levels, and Rozen (2013), who states policy goals, whether global or local, depend on the capacity of local governments.

The promise may be in the growing literature of implementation science, the discipline that studies use of research evidence to change processes in the field (Demiris, Parker, Capurro, & Wittenberg-Lyles, 2014; Choueiki, 2016). Its literature furthers the connections between organizational theory and capacity, and ultimately the successful implementation of programs (Proctor et al., 2011; Proctor, Powell, & McMillen, 2013; Waltz, Powell, Mathieu, Damschroder, & Chinman, 2015). However, implementation science has its limits as well for public administration purposes. While there are exceptions, the majority of the literature about implementation uses the medical field as context (Winkler, Weissova, & Ehler, 2015; Damschroder et al., 2009), and is focused on why organizations do or do not adopt practices within established programs in line with new research evidence, rather than on the characteristics that allow organizations to implement programs.

Proposed Local Programmatic Organizational Capacity Framework

We suggest combining the concepts of capacity and implementation within a programmatic context to understand the adoption and success of local program...

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