Warning: This post is adapted from one of my papers for my cross-sector collaboration and management class. It is quite theoretical and may only be only interesting to nerds like me. If you believe yourself to be a nerd like me, read on.
In the last few decades, there has been an increased focus on “efficiency” in the social sector. Efficiency in the social sector can mean a lot of things–sometimes its about cutting costs, sometimes its about using business practices to better deliver social services (here I’m using “social sector” to refer to both nonprofit and government sectors), sometimes it’s about both cost reduction and business processes unified under the mantel of “entrepreneurship.” In the “entrepreneurial” model of the social sector, public servants fill the role as service providers for citizens (consumers) that react to market forces. This approach to governance is exemplified by Al Gore’s mid-90s National Performance Review that recommended reforms on how to get better results out of our government.
In this entrepreneurial social sector, public servants use efficient means to deliver better and more responsive services to their constituents. Basically, the role of a government/nonprofit employee is to deliver better services in a more timely manner for less money. Everyone’s happy, right? Well, unfortunately, researchers have shown that this bottom-line-focused approach to public service excludes vulnerable members of our society. By looking only at efficiency, they ignore the promise of equality that our government promises. This tradeoff between efficiency and equality is well established in social science literature–and it makes common sense: If you’re focused on costs and the best way to provide services, you are going to ignore the most disadvantaged, because they have the most problems and are usually the hardest to reach.
But, the tenants of entrepreneurship and equality are by no means inconsistent. In fact, there is a growing movement to encourage civic engagement through entrepreneurship. The Points of Light Foundation has started a “civic incubator” that supports enterprises focused on building community wealth and citizen engagement. They have supported organizations such as Fuse Corps, which connects professionals with city governments for a one-year fellowship aimed at solving a large-scale challenge, as well as Moneythink, which teaches financial literacy to urban high schoolers. The Rockefeller Foundation launched a “100 Resilient Cities” challenge for cities around the world to compete for resources to strengthen their civic infrastructure. Of course, all of these examples fit into to the broader “social enterprise” movement, and social entrepreneurs around the world are using businesses practices to serve some of the most vulnerable.
One could argue that these social enterprise leaders are themselves public servants, using the tools of efficiency and entrepreneurship to engage with citizens and serve their needs. I believe this is the case, but I’ll save that for another post. Instead, I will focus on the role of “classic” public servants. Classic public servants (that is, those working in government agencies*) can also use the tools of social entrepreneurship to serve the public. By harnessing the power of these social entrepreneurs and serving their needs, the public servant is employing the tools of entrepreneurship through the method of service to create stronger communities, and therefore increase equity. (This assumes that a public servant has some degree of accountability and would not support social enterprises actually end up hurting the community more than they help. I think this “do no harm” assumption is a fair one.)
Taking this view of entrepreneurship, equity and service morphs the public servant’s role to one of facilitator and social infrastructure developer. The public servant works with on-the-ground social entrepreneurs to grow their programs and solutions, through connections as well as resource support. This leads to stronger communities and a more engaged citizenry. In this way, public servants can serve, be efficient through entrepreneurial means, and create a more equitable society. There is no need to make a tradeoff between any of these concepts.
And everyone is happy!
Photo credit: Emily Hoyer
*The role definitions here can get confusing when you realize that both nonprofits and for-profits can be social enterprises.