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Projectitis vs. Systems Change: The Infusion of the Broader System Instead of Staying Inside the Silo of the Project

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
February 18, 2020

Projectitis is a governmental and NGO disorder that is widespread, in which the heavy focus on an externally funded project usually makes consideration of the larger system a small, sidelined issue. When starting a project, leadership may ask the numbers they serve but rarely question how many in their jurisdiction need the service. Projects have had to work so hard to launch an innovative program that the idea a wider scope is possible is often completely off their radar. Redirection of existing resources—which are always much larger than the grant—is rarely in view, even when we ask the question, “If it’s better, why isn’t it bigger?” Resources equal results equal resources calls to question much better the project’s outcomes are than current results, which are not always in view beyond the current funded project. The results in the project should differ from the results in the larger system.

Systems sometimes welcome projects as insulation from large-scale innovation. The scale issue tends to disappear when focusing on a project. System-wide innovation beyond project scale encounters barriers of training and model fidelity. Some projects try to expand scale by dropping one or more ingredients of the model or increasing caseload size for front-line workers and counselors. This is really not scaling up as much as it is watering down, and it may affect outcomes over time. Expansion can also be affected by putting so much emphasis on training workers that the impact of that training on the larger system is neglected.

By ignoring promising policy and systems changes that can benefit a project, and only focusing on the current grant, the staff and leadership default to a one-time grant-funded pilot project. Grant pursuit as a revenue strategy eventually reveals this insulating behavior as it protects the status quo. Pursuing an external grant to innovate essentially admits, without ever saying it, that, “We will only do this if someone else pays for it; everything we are now using our existing funding for is more important and more effective than the innovation you are proposing, and we couldn’t possibly divert our funding to this innovation.”

Accepting such behavior is one thing; failing to understand its origins is worse. So the task is recognizing that a funder is narrowly focused on a single facet of a complex problem, unwilling to move to new topics, or unable to admit that another agency’s resources are equally important to their own and therefore must be sought in patient, continuing negotiations.

Who can be the champion in looking at a project through the lens of the whole system? Although there is a need for those that can have a micro view of current funded tasks within a project, it is essential to find leadership that can see the whole system and the whole need at scale instead of just the current funded count of services or clients. There must be an infusion of what works effectively in the project that can be brought into the broader systems to make an impact on policy and systems changes.

Projects that use their fiscal management staff to make decisions on services and clients without the knowledge of the consumers and front line workers may be unable to see the whole system and the vital connections they should be making with other agencies’ resources and staff. The best reason for making a change in practice or policy is because it will work better to make services and/or families’ lives better; some of the worst reasons are because the funder wants it this way.

Projects that ignore real costs and only focus on the existing funding are also ignoring that budgets are policy, in the final analysis, and costs underlie those policy decisions. Costs always matter, and usually get overlooked. The case for paying attention to costs is based on the results-resources framework. There are two core questions that make clear why costs are unavoidable:

  • What would it cost to take this successful innovation to scale? Or, again: if it’s better, why isn’t it bigger?
  • How much would we save in the long run if state and local site teams and policymakers at all levels of government took our advice about this innovation?

If costs are missing from a discussion of a project’s results, we may be downplaying or ignoring the fact that innovation at first usually increases costs by requiring more data and analysis, more staffing and smaller caseloads, more training, more time to collaborate and negotiate with new partners, etc. Cost analysis is difficult and it is possible to distinguish minimal, better and ideal levels of cost analysis. But to leave it out assumes that budget makers will ignore costs. Budgets are policy, in the final analysis, and costs underlie those policy decisions. The data that isn’t available may be more important than the data that is being used, because it is not collected or because it would point to a gap or barrier in current operations.

All these factors contribute to a cure for projectitis. Innovators and funders both need to take the medicine that moves from projects to systems thinking.

Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]

Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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