To weather the social impacts of COVID-19, we must take community care seriously

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Community care has been posited as an integral piece of the solutions and supports needed to weather the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, associated crises such as the eviction crisis, and the spotlighting of ongoing systemic racism in policing and other domains via the Movement for Black Lives. Community care is often held up as a counterpoint or alternative to failures in the non-profit and governmental responses. Truly, the pandemic and associated social crises have laid bare not only systemic racism throughout governmental and non-profit systems, but also the inefficiency that results when aging bureaucracies accumulate additional top-down regulation, long term disinvestment and budget cuts, and the downstream impacts of chaotic privatization. To put it plainly, consider the roots of the systems we describe: if our government is a white man, then the non-profit sector is a white woman. Community care is best personified, and has been primarily built by, Black women, and is fiercely inclusive of all.

Long term strategies must be pursed aggressively, including diversity and inclusion initiatives in hiring and workforce development, supporting Black-owned businesses and non-profits, policy strategies to fund social services more robustly and shift governmental functions away from law enforcement, and political strategies to increase representation by Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, Americans of Color, and Americans of poor and working class backgrounds in seats of political power. But what does that mean for folks being failed by the system today, and the community members bearing witness to these failures among their friends and neighbors, when billions in relief is being distributed to states from our collective federal purse?

If public-private partnerships have the power of the state and the freedom of the market, then public-common or public-community partnerships combine the power of the state with our collective humanity and our care for one another. By building on the infrastructure and freedom afforded by the more formal non-profit structures that exist, a cooperative approach with decision making authority, flexibility, and trust at multiple levels may be possible.

Polycentric governance A primer on polycentricity and COVID-19 can be found here, by Stephanie Haeffele, Jessica Carges, and Anne Hobson. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics based on her work that undercut both liberal and conservative assumptions regarding the Tragedy of the Commons. This follows a community pasture for shared grazing of cattle, and the presumed tragedy that unfolds as farmers selfishly add cows to graze, for their individual profit, ultimately rendering the field barren, to the detriment of all. This allegory has been used to support the fierce privatization of what should be common resources as well as to back the importance of top-down regulation, oversight, and rules of use. Yet, Ostrom’s work championed a third way — polycentric governance of common pool resources. She identified these practices in world-wide small communities that had successfully been sustaining shared resources for decades or centuries (as compared to the relatively narrow histories of large-scale privatization of public resources and intense regulation of local resources by the state or federal government). Common pool resources refer to resources from which it is difficult or costly to exclude beneficiaries (through physical or institutional means) and of which use by one consumer reduces the availability of the resource for others. This is often summarized as “the exclusion problem” and “the subtractability problem.” Polycentric governance as a framework for solving complicated systems issues in the public interest has gained traction in global strategy for climate action. Yet, the problems of exclusion and subtractability as well as the solutions of polycentricity, power sharing, and community co-management have henceforth been applied to domains such as transportation systems, roads, the Internet, and, most relevantly, health services.

Beyond theory, in practice, modern experts (which tends to include climate scientists, modern evolutionary theorists, and psychologists), including Paul Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steven Hayes summarize Ostrom’s work like this: “polycentric governance respects the localized needs, knowledge, and autonomy of small groups, as well as the need for modern societies to organize at the regional, national, or even global scale. It takes into consideration that life consists of many spheres of activity, that each sphere has an optimal scale, and that good governance requires identifying the optimal scale for each sphere and appropriate coordination among spheres.” Thus, flexibilities are extended to the most local level possible, given the pattern of contingencies needed to build efficiency and access. This argument is often misconstrued as an argument for decentralization, but in fact, polycentricity, when working appropriately, is an antidote for the limits of decentralization as much as it is an antidote for the limits of central planning and privatization. Yet, for many current systems, moving towards polycentricity does involve moving power structures from federal or state to more local governments and non-profits. Yet, beyond local government and non-profits are powerful networks of community care which should be welcomed to COVID-19 response frameworks.

In other words — the question that governments and non-profits are being called to answer is not “what is your long term solution to this problem that is considered to be under your jurisdiction,” but, “to what extent are you willing to share your power with the communities you serve given what is so clearly obvious about the limitations of your current approach to address the current crisis with any sense of equity or urgency?”

Below are some tangible areas for non-profits and governmental agencies to consider as they continue to be tapped by the federal government as stewards of COVID-19 relief in the form of funding. Because COVID-19 relief is primarily in the form of financial support, these resources which should be common are highly subtractable but technically, high in excludability as well (given the myriad social structures and bureaucracies that have evolved over time to render governmental aid more or less accessible to some businesses, organizations, communities, and families), which means that whether or not these resources are governed as shared relies on the decisions of those in power with decision making authority.

Federal and State Governments. As someone who works in government in a position of relative power, my inbox and schedule were flooded with a certain class of high-tech, healthcare entrepreneurs within days of stay-at-home orders. The pitches were impeccable — zoom waiting rooms with special features for difficult to engage clients, at-home-urine testing protocols, and more. The faces: white. The timezone: pacific. It would have been easy to engage with these quick solutions — but engagement would rely on dissonance with the reality of the situation and the limitations of our current approaches. It would put my organizations desire to “do something” (or appear to do something) above the true complexities of the challenge.

First, federal and state governments should set up structures to receive input from their subrecipients, and continue to listen until you are able to collectively distill down the elements that are needed by both agencies for success. Then, federal and state governments should focus their attention on core protections, and avoid proscribing narrow areas of focus. When the desire to narrow the focus in some way, the question to ask is, “what am I hoping to achieve or guard against with this parameter?” and use the answer to guide your planning. For example, if you are proposing a parameter that you have evidence to believe will address racial disparities (i.e., funding a specific program that you believe would be a community asset), focus on ensuring that your data and reporting structures include the ability to track by race and ethnicity and providing training in your preferred approach instead of proscribing it. If there is a particular outdated approach which has evidence of harm, consider directly excluding that approach, vs. proscribing your personally preferred approach altogether.

Review your existing non-profit and private partnerships and contracts from a racial equity and social justice perspective. Anyone with experience in government knows that terminating, changing, or starting a new governmental contract is a long-term process inundated with bureaucracies of public procurement law. Thus, consider your realistic options. On the one hand, the non-profits you are contracting with are likely in financial distress and under a lot of pressure. Yet, increasing flexibilities is not a blanket solution — for example, a subrecipient could choose to retain their staff salaries to weather the pandemic which would ultimately mean less additional, creative investments in the communities served. By engaging in honest conversations with subrecipients that acknowledge both the financial distress and the limitations of the current approaches, creative solutions can emerge, and parameters placed will be protective, not simply burdensome.

Local Governments. In addition to advocating for flexibilities to be passed from federal and state entities to the local level, local governments must also consider their role in increasing flexibility and protections that resources target the communities most in need. For example — if you are successful in advocating for flexibility from state or federal government to use funds to support infrastructure staff positions, the onus is now on you to ensure that the remainder of the budget goes directly to those in need, whether that means relying on existing partnerships or forging new ones. When considering what can be done, do not rely on the opinions of one or two staff members- have your legal counsel and policy experts look at your rules and regulations directly, and have honest discussion of what authorities you may have to change things to make your response more efficient and direct.

Non-profits with existing governmental contracts. Except for in rare circumstances, if you are a non-profit who has had a large scale governmental contract in your area, you are part of an organization that was formed under systemic racism and your structures and practices are critiqued as part of the non-profit industrial complex. Instead of withdrawing in shame and creating long-term strategic plans to increase diversity and equity, this moment requires honesty, transparency, and humility. How can you leverage your existing contracts to power with the community, instead of engaging in self-preservation only? With honesty, there are likely mutually beneficial solutions if real conversations can occur. For example — if there are community aid networks or smaller nonprofits that have an innovative approach to getting aid to those in need, how can you work together systemically? Solutions are not straight forward- it would involve different combinations of payroll protection, pay cuts and furloughs for well-paid employees, particularly those who would welcome the opportunity to spend more time at home or are paid enough to weather the crisis financially, and suspending current conceptions of “what works.” By setting shame aside and engaging in honest communication, barriers can be identified and addressed directly (i.e., if a certain policy is the problem, identify the holder of the policy and request emergency provisions. If the ability to track outcomes is the problem, consider your existing resources that could be shared to solve the problem, or consider alternate conceptualizations of what success looks like, based on community input). The reality is, your existing data reporting structure, although purposeful to some end, is not more demonstrative of outcomes than a texted picture of a receipt showing that funds were used to pay for hotel rooms or food.

Mobilizing Polycentricity To mobilize resources to mutual aid networks and novel approaches to community care, power at the federal, state, local, and non-profit level must be passed downward and protected. For example, flexibilities at the state would only be helpful if there is a guarantee that localities or subcontracted nonprofits will also pass this flexibility down. Passing flexibilities to the local level, just to have non-profits engage in self-preserving behavior or give excuses for not meeting outcomes is not a polycentric solution. But, by enhancing communication and trust at each intersection of governance, creative, mutually-beneficial solutions can emerge that meet the minimally-acceptable needs of funding structures and other organizations, without preserving governmental and non-profit structures to the detriment of individual community members and networks of care.

Governmental agencies and well-established non-profits have infrastructure for mobilization as well as data and reporting. Community coalitions, mutual aid networks, and newly developed, justice-oriented non-profits have close connections to the communities in need, and have formed, critically, in the gaps laid bare during the pandemic. Instead of holding your infrastructure hostage due to shame of these identified inadequacies or fear for your ability to thrive in the future, mindfully and boldly work with the community solutions that have emerged, even if it is difficult. Ostrom articulated 8 core design principles for successful polycentric governance, which describe the conditions under which self-interest can be curbed in the interest of mutually beneficial outcomes and arrangements. The principles are shared purpose and identity, equitable distribution of costs and benefits, fair and inclusive decision making, monitoring of agreed-upon behaviors, graduated responses to helpful and unhelpful behaviors, fast and fair conflict resolution, authority to self-govern, and collaborative relations with other groups. Recently, an evidence-based approach, termed Prosocial, for helping groups and groups of groups align their interests, increase their cooperation, and achieve shared goals, has been defined (Atkins, Wilson, Hayes, 2019). A simple example of how current structures impair successful polycentricity would be the equitable distribution of costs and benefits. Whereas governmental and non-profit staff are in well-paid, sustainable positions, community members and mutual aid networks are often volunteering their time and using their own resources to fill these gaps, whether through participating in workgroups, task forces, or providing direct aid. Thus, to achieve polycentricity, governments should seek ways to compensate those investing their time in achieving these solutions. When bureaucratic walls stand in the way, question those walls and elevate their burden instead of retreating to existing structures and relationships. The Prosocial process would urge all partners at the table to honestly engage with not only their shared interests and goals, but also the difficult thoughts and feelings that arise when trying to engage in this work. For example, it is likely that government and non-profit workers experience shame and internal distress when facing criticism, and it is likely that community members and smaller non-profits experience ongoing distrust, discrimination, and powerlessness when trying to engage with governments and established non-profits. The Prosocial process would indicate that we can hold these things to be true while also working together to identify creative solutions to reach our shared goals — it would urge all to engage in true stewardship.

Stewards were recently defined by Milstein and colleagues (2020) as “people or organizations who take responsibility for working with others to create conditions that all people need to thrive, beginning with those who are struggling and suffering.” To be true stewards, governments and non-profits must reckon with the systemic failures of the current moment, and humbly trust the communities you are tasked to serve. At the federal and state level, trust that localities, if required to engage directly with their community stakeholders and those most marginalized, will be able to identify efficient solutions. And local governments and non-profits, trust the folks who see the gaps because their friends and neighbors are falling through them — or because they have fallen through themselves. The COVID-19 response will be critically evaluated in the years to come.

There will be missteps and miscalculations. Yet, there is a world of difference between missteps that put additional resources in the hands of those who already have more than their share and missteps that extended a flexibility to meet a true need or documented its impact in an alternative way to current policy. Be bold — your community, and frankly, your reputation, depends on it.

References: Atkins, P., Wilson, D.S., Hayes, S.C. (2019). Prosocial: Using evolutionary science to build productive, equitable, and collaborative groups. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA.

Milstein, B., Erickson, J., Gouveia, T., Qureshi, N., & Nelson, C. Amplifying Stewardship: Characteristics and trends stewards consider when expanding equitable well-being. (2020). Rippel Foundation. Accessed from:

Ostrom, E. (1992). Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Natural Resources Journal, 32, 415.

Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

Ostrom E. (2005). Doing Institutional Analysis Digging Deeper Than Markets and Hierarchies. In:

Menard C., Shirley M.M. (eds) Handbook of New Institutional Economics. Springer, Boston, MA.

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