For the past dozen years, I have worked with local governments evaluating a variety of programs, from environmental to judicial; in the past year, my concentration has been on state and local work in child nutrition programs. The lesson I have learned is that the intergovernmental system is at a breaking point. Many local governments, nonprofits and state officials are literally saying, “Running this program is not worth it. We know it is great. We need it. But it is not even an option. We can’t do any more.”
Take, for example, the Agriculture Department’s Summer Food Service Program or Summer Seamless Option program. These programs will reimburse local governments or nonprofits that provide summer meals to low-income children. In North Carolina, 56 percent of the school population is now eligible for this program, yet less than 15 percent of eligible kids actually participated last year, leaving $2.7 million of potential reimbursements on the table each day. Fifteen of the state’s 100 counties, with thousands of eligible kids, don’t offer a program at all. Several jurisdictions and a major regional food bank discontinued their summer meal efforts last year, even as the state worked hard to recruit additional program sponsors.
Why would a local government or nonprofit with demonstrated need turn down a fully funded federal entitlement program that feeds hungry kids, brings needed dollars to a community and maybe even generates jobs?
The answer came from an evaluation of a North Carolina pilot summer meal program, run under a USDA waiver. While the program was remarkably successful, raising participation by more than 150 percent, it came at a cost. To paraphrase a local official, “Running the program was a nightmare.”
The problem is local logistics: a lack of personnel, administrative capacity and upfront financial support. Add in a large amount of paperwork and the stress of potential financial loss (and therefore job ramifications for the administrator) if it is not managed correctly. Both the state and local program administrators were burned out by summer’s end. The evaluation team questioned the prospects for the program’s continued success, given the toll it took on the administrators.
So I offer three pieces of advice to managers of federal programs generally:
■ Recognize that the capacity of your local partner is crucial. If the local government lacks capacity, your program will fail. If all politics are local, then all governmental programs are local, too: Some person must actually do the work to implement federal programs within each community, and in most cases, this is ultimately a local administrator. For your program to succeed, that organization or manager must be able to take on more work. Is that a reasonable expectation?
■ Instead of efforts to limit administrative costs or administrative burden, think of how to ensure or support local capacity. Local capacity is composed of multiple resources — personnel, administrative skill, time, technical infrastructure, among other things — and the costs typically are not covered by programs’ allowance for administrative costs. As highlighted by the March 5 Congressional Budget Office report, “Federal Grants to State and Local Governments,” federal programs limit reimbursements for administration. However, we really don’t know what it takes to run some of these programs. There is no federal definition of administrative costs.
Limiting federal funds spent on administration does not mean the unfunded burden goes away. Someone (read: locals) must pay for it. And in many cases, they can’t absorb the costs any more.
■ Local officials are not lazy or uncaring. What is being offered by the federal program is not enough. I have seen a major program initiative dismissed by a state official because of the transition costs. An official listening to a federal webinar on how to improve her program turned it off as soon as it focused on grant funding available to support implementation. “Who has time to write a grant?” And if a program is mandated, at some point federal managers need to consider if it is only being implemented in form, not substance.
Perhaps we need to consider the example of the private sector — managers there understand that if the delivery system has reached capacity, no new goods will ever get to market.
Maureen Berner is a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, where she teaches program evaluation and specializes in state and local government programs. She is a former Presidential Management Intern and Government Accountability Office evaluator.