Abstract: The Interstitial Role of Neighborhood Organizations in Local Governance (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

The Interstitial Role of Neighborhood Organizations in Local Governance

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 1:00 PM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 16 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Robert Chaskin, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
David M. Greenberg, PhD, Senior Associate, MDRC, New York, NY
Purpose:  Recent decades have witnessed shifts in the division of labor among state and non-state actors, leading to forms of “collaborative governance” with an emphasis on public-private partnerships, coproduction arrangements, and networked governance structures (Kjaer, 2009; Pierre, 1999; Salamon, 2011). In the context of efforts to address urban poverty and promote community development, neighborhood nonprofits often play an important role, spearheading local processes of deliberation, provision, and collective action and connecting neighborhood processes and priorities to decisions and actions at higher levels (Berry, Portney & Thomson, 1993; Crenson, 1983; Logan & Rabrenovic, 1990). Indeed, some recent scholarship argues that such organizations may go beyond their core provisional and advocacy functions to play a much more central role in actually governingby contributing directly to public decision-making and action as part of the governing process (Marwell 2004, 2007; Ostrander 2010, 2013; Siriani 2009). But the role these neighborhood organizations may play and the relative influence they may have in the context of these collaborative governance arrangements is not fully understood.

Methods:  Based on two years of fieldwork on the New Communities Program in Chicago—including 120 interviews, field observation, and documentary analysis in 16 neighborhoods (with a more intensive focus on six in-depth case study sites)—this paper examines the extent to which neighborhood nonprofits contribute to local governance. In doing so, it focuses on three principal functions—deliberation, representation, and resource allocation—that are central to governance. To what extent do neighborhood nonprofits perform these functions, and to what effect? To what extent do these functions become incorporated into government decision-making and policy implementation? What are the costs, benefits, and tensions inherent in these processes and relations?

Results: We find that many community organizations engage in governing processes in both direct and indirect ways, and in some cases contribute to significant neighborhood influence on policy outcomes. However, opportunities to wield such influence often take place at the intersticesof public and private action, often in response to “gaps” in state policy or infrastructure. Opportunities to engage more directly in governance arise and recede and may move along a continuum between more and less direct engagement in governance processes as these interstitial spaces open or contract. Finally, even when such space opens to grant nonprofits direct influence in urban governance, conflict sometimes occurs among community organizations, and between them and the state, around the boundaries of control in ways that may constrain action on the part of neighborhood groups or, in some cases, create new opportunities to direct resources to low-income neighborhoods.

Implications:  To the extent that neighborhood organizations can successfully open up this interstitial space, they can begin to inform and leverage governmental action and play more direct roles in governance. Local organizations with strong connections to political actors and those linked to well-connected allies (such as broader CBO networks and influential intermediaries) are in stronger positions to shape opportunities for influence.