Methods: In this paper we use qualitative data from the policy fields of homeless services and K-12 education. Our data on homeless service networks is drawn from a national survey of the population of Continuums of Care, HUD’s mechanism for administering funding and honoring local control, as well as in-depth qualitative data from 18 regional Continuums. Using a grounded theory approach, we developed a theoretical framework for understanding how national level reforms are experienced by and responded to at the ground level by both human service organizations and regional leadership. Based on a deductive analysis of that data, we suggest three ways in which local implementers respond. We then use case study data on how local school districts responded to No Child Left Behind to test and refine our framework.
Results: Ultimately, we find that regional authorities respond in one of three ways when faced with challenging federal mandates—strategic, authoritative, and ceremonial. Strategic: Leverages policy mandates in order to generate new initiatives, focus energy, and (re)invest stakeholders in working toward shared goals. Most often found in high capacity networks or districts with strong existing relationships. Authoritative: Utilizes policy mandates to consolidate power, including efforts to intimidate providers/schools into compliance, punish those who do not align, and minimize stakeholder voices. Most often found in networks or districts with existing fissures or bimodal relationships, or where local elected officials are heavily involved. Ceremonial: Actions are often reactive, experienced as ‘muddling through,’ and legitimacy-seeking versus goal-directive. Unaligned core actions persist, usually from lack of knowledge, capacity, or resources.
Conclusions & Implications: We find these three basic responses held across both policy areas and provide a useful framework for understanding why federal mandates look and feel different across localities. While this question has plagued social work since the War on Poverty, our framework helps update policy implementation research in light of growing networked governance, contracting (including charter schools), and expanding devolutionary trends. These insights are relevant to social workers who often work at the intersection of multiple policy areas and experience tensions that arise between federal mandates and local decision-making. Further, this framework aids social workers who manage human service organizations or regional authorities better assess and negotiate local dynamics as federal mandates emerge and change.