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Work in the Gap, Governments in Service to Underserved Populations

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Joe Sarcone

Somewhere between our mission and the work that we do everyday rests the plight of the under-served. How can this gap exist? More often than not our organization’s mission defines the extent of our public service. At the core of our service lie the laws, regulations and policies that decide our work day to day. Even though there is intent at the core to serve all equally according to our mission this doesn’t always happen. Moreover the unaddressed issues of the under-served in the gap do not necessarily resolve themselves of their own accord. Instead they come back to the attention of government in the most unexpected and costly ways.

Today as government agency budgets shrink and regulations and policies tighten we face unprecedented challenges to our agency missions. As the gap widens between program implementation and mission the under-served caught in the gap pay a disproportionately higher price in reduced or eliminated services. As public servants working at this juncture we have a choice. We can assert that we’ve done everything we can within the constraints we face or we can work to close the gap.

In the face of political and economic uncertainty how can we make good on the conviction that the role of government is to equitably serve? How do we work to close the gap? We push. We push from inside the core of laws, regulations and policies that direct our work daily outward to the boundary that represents our mission. We can do this by engaging under-served populations in actions that are inclusive, participatory, flexible, applicable, compatible, and sustainable.

Under-served communities fall along a dynamic continuum of capability to manage, operate and maintain programs and services. Changes in variables such as leadership, personnel, and local economy can produce immediate and dramatic movement along the continuum in either direction. An inclusive approach that recognizes this dynamic is based on the following reasoning; capability can be built starting at any point along the continuum; the best place to start is at a point the under-served community identifies; and, a community identified starting point is more likely to lead to a sustainable outcome.

Key to participatory process is the understanding that the people who know best how to get things done where they live are the people who live there. Tapping this is not a one time event. It is a continuous process. The consequences of asking, listening and acting on community input are increased benefits to the under-served community and decreased costs to government.

Flexibility opens the door to respecting the ways of others. Time and the passage of time hold different meaning for different groups of people. In working with under-served communities more time can be just as crucial as funding level and technical assistance in achieving the successful implementation of a program or completion of a project.

The conditions that define the existence of an under-served population determine if our programs are applicable. It helps if we are aware that our program or service may not have the same significance for the under-served community as it does for us. When we thoughtfully and appropriately adjust our expectations to the expectations of the community our actions become more applicable.

Often the consequences of introducing a government project or program to an under-served population reach beyond our understanding and control. Our actions can have social, cultural, and economic impacts that include changes in local government authorities and responsibilities and traditional practices. Our actions are more likely to be compatible with community interests when they strengthen local governance, protect social and cultural integrity, and develop local economy.

In coming full circle a thoughtful approach for working with under-served populations recognizes that capability can be built starting at any point along a dynamic continuum; the best place to start is at a point the under-served community identifies; and, a community identified starting point is more likely to lead to a sustainable outcome.

Somewhere between our mission and the work that we do everyday rests the plight of the under-served. As public servants we have a choice. We can accept this condition or we can work to close the gap. We can work with others to close this gap by moving beyond political and economic constraints to engage under-served populations in actions that are inclusive, participatory, flexible, applicable, compatible and sustainable.

Joe Sarcone has worked at the interface of government and indigenous people for more than two decades. At this time he is the Regional Representative in Alaska for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Email: [email protected]

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About Joe Sarcone

Joe Sarcone has worked at the interface of government and indigenous people for more than two decades. At this time he is the Regional Representative in Alaska for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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