The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Fostering Democracy Or Institutionalizing Exclusion? How Human Service Organizations Attempt to “Speak” On Behalf of Vulnerable Communities

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:15 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon E, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer E. Mosley, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Colleen M. Grogan, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: Human service organizations have come to play a large, yet underrecognized, role in a variety of public participatory processes.  State and local governments have both implicitly and explicitly encouraged this participation in order to meet public policy goals of inclusiveness and accountability.  It is unclear, however, the degree to which the political participation of these organizations advances the political inclusion of vulnerable communities, or if it simply promotes their own interests. To shed light on these issues, this paper addresses three research questions: (1) How do social service leaders conceptualize their role as political actors? (2) If they see themselves as representatives, what do they believe it means to be a “good” representative?  (3) Finally, what steps, if any, do they take to ensure that their representation is a legitimate reflection of community concerns? 

Methods: The data for this paper come from 105 qualitative interviews held with leaders of human service organizations located in three neighborhoods on the Southside of Chicago.  These neighborhoods were chosen as typical of low-income, predominately black, neighborhoods where political exclusion is known to be high. The response rate was 56% and site visits showed that non-responders were predominantly low capacity organizations with little probability of playing a representative role.  Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and data was analyzed using NVIVO software.  Thematic analysis was the primary analytic approach.

Results: We find that most respondents did see themselves as community representatives (63%) and that even more (78%) were involved in at least one type of representative advocacy activity.  Involved organizational leaders tend to subscribe to one of two models of representation: a trustee model or a delegate model.  Leaders that follow a trustee model carry out their representation without clear communication with community members.  They see their personal expertise as sufficient to adequately represent community needs and do not make consistent efforts to engage the community.  Leaders that follow a delegate model attempt to carry out representation that meets democratic goals and fosters inclusive decision-making.  Beyond these two groups, we also find that there is a smaller cadre of organizations (typically smaller, grassroots organizations) whose leaders see themselves as good potential representatives, but are politically disengaged and unaware of how to become involved in this type of activity.

Conclusions and Implications: When designing participatory processes and other forums where advocacy takes place, public administrators should be aware that social service organizations take very different approaches to their representation.  Specifically, representation differs in the degree to which it promotes political inclusion and advances democratic goals.  Organizations that take a “delegate” approach to their representation should be preferred as members of governance networks.  Administrators should also address the unfulfilled promise of the number of organizations that want to contribute and may have a unique perspective but find themselves left out of formal participatory processes and other advocacy opportunities.  Finding ways to engage low capacity organizations will be vital to making sure that the needs of vulnerable populations are more fully met.