How Can Governments Make Change? Go Wide or Go Deep.

Imagine a child who has experienced homelessness and who has had to change schools multiple times due to moving between foster homes, shelters, and the street. Oftentimes a young person like this becomes involved with multiple government agencies, like the Department of Child Welfare, the Department of Juvenile Justice, or the Department of Health, because the work that each of these agencies does tends to be narrowly focused on a solving a specific set of problems. Some agencies aim to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, others seek to rehabilitate youth who have committed crimes, and yet others try to prevent and treat illness and disease.

While each sector can implement its own solutions that may work some of the time for some young people, sustainable social change requires government agencies to collaborate.

But at which level of government (e.g., local, county, state, or federal) should we direct our efforts? The answer lies in the type of change we hope to create.

For the last two years, Bellwether has worked with three different government agencies operating at three different levels of government to address the issue of care agency fragmentation. This work aims to facilitate greater coordination among agencies that serve youth who experience disrupted education trajectories resulting from traumatic experiences like homelessness, foster care placement, incarceration, or severe mental health crises. In our work so far with these partners, we’ve identified two key factors for decision-makers to consider: the depth of impact they hope to spur for an individual young person and the breadth of impact they hope to create system-wide.

Depth of impact

When we think about the depth of impact a given organization can have on a problem, we think about how much change that single agency can make for a particular individual. Our work with our partners suggests that the level of depth is directly correlated with where an agency or organization sits in the jurisdictional hierarchy. For example, our state-level partner is an agency embedded within the state department of education. They oversee a program that supports youth who are incarcerated and/or in foster care. They set requirements for the program, monitor the quality of how the program is implemented, provide funding to the program, and put in place the policies and structures that govern the programs for tens of thousands of eligible students statewide. The amount of impact on a given student is limited compared to our county- and district-level partners.

Our county-level partner is more in tune with the specific needs of the individuals living in the communities it encompasses, yet still somewhat removed from their day-to-day lives. It falls somewhere in the middle of the depth of impact spectrum. Our district-level partner is an office embedded in the local school district. The office provides intensive case management services for youth who face severe challenges to academic success. They have a much deeper impact on individual students, visiting them in their homes and at their schools, meeting with their family members or care givers, and coordinating among any social services they may be receiving.

Breadth of impact

Breadth of impact includes both the number of individuals that a given change can impact and the number of other agencies that change touches.

Our state-level partner, for example, has the ability to change policies and procedures for the programs it oversees, and to require that districts implementing that program adhere to those policies. Any changes it makes also affect all of the students in the state who qualify for the program — in some cases, tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Our county-level partner also has the ability to affect change in other agencies, albeit to a lesser degree. It can make changes to the districts and programs that fall within its jurisdiction, giving it a larger ability to affect change in other agencies. Unlike our state partner, however, the county is also subject to any policy changes coming down from the state level. Like the state, however, county-level policies can affect all of the students living within its jurisdictional boundaries — likely thousands.

At the other end of the spectrum is our district-level partner. It is much more limited in its ability to affect change in other agencies, and also encompasses many fewer students. In fact, our district-level partner serves less than 100 students and families at any single point in time in its programs.

Pulling it all together

These two factors — breadth and depth of impact — tend to correlate inversely with one another (see figure above). That is, the deeper impact an agency has on a person, likely the fewer number of people it touches. The opposite is also true: The depth of change lessens even as more and more people may be affected by a change.

Ultimately, there is no “right” answer for where to go to solve a problem. Expecting a state agency to affect deep levels of change on hundreds of thousands of students is not realistic. Neither is expecting a local district to affect change statewide. Policymakers and agency and organization leaders must consider both the nature of the problem and the type of change they hope to create before implementing solutions.