Building Social Capital through Devolved Decision Making: The Stronger Communities Action Fund

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines the impact on community levels of social capital of an initiative by the Department of Child Youth and Family Services, the Stronger Communities Action Fund. The initiative has the goals of testing models of devolved decision making, encouraging communities to identify their social service needs, supporting innovative responses and increasing the stock of social capital. The high-level objective of the project is to improve outcomes for children, young people and families in disadvantaged communities. The research was based on Bullen and Onyx's (1998) work on the empirical measurement of social capital in communities. It was also informed by other social capital theorists and recent research on the measurement of social capital. The initiative appears to have had a positive effect on social capital. Indicators include increased participation, the creation of new networks and associations, and greater proactivity. The high-level objective of child and family wellbeing has provided some glue to hold the project together. The resulting growth in social capital needs to be matched by investment in economic, environmental and human capital to ensure positive future outcomes for the communities involved.

INTRODUCTION

Despite considerable investment by government in the design and delivery of social programmes over the past 20 years, some communities in New Zealand are beset by seemingly intractable social problems such as long-term unemployment, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and youth crime. The impact of the wide-ranging economic and state sector reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, and the changing nature of the global economy, left many New Zealanders in socially and economically disadvantaged circumstances. The accompanying political and social climate often did little to acknowledge these external forces and their impact on families and communities.

More recently, attention has been focused on taking a community-driven approach to assessing local social service needs and designing locally responsive solutions. This approach is premised on the assumption that it will lead to greater community investment in, and ownership of, both the problems and the responses to them. It is also assumed that such models will contribute positively to levels of social capital within the communities concerned. Social capital theory posits that the accumulated networks of goodwill, trust, shared values and reciprocity that are generated through voluntary interactions and associations in communities lead to an increased level of trust and collaboration, which continues to build on itself. The outcome of this process is social capital. Communities with strong stocks of social capital are expected to engender functional families and support social cohesion (Robinson 1997).

This paper assesses the impact of the Stronger Communities Action Fund (SCAF), a pilot of a community-government partnership to allocate funding for social services. The Department of Child, Youth and Family Services initiated the SCAF project in seven communities in 2001. Its goals are to:

* test models of devolved decision making across a range of communities

* encourage communities to identify their own social service needs

* support the development and funding of innovative, community-based responses to local needs

* develop capacity in the communities involved

* contribute to increasing the stock of social capital in those same communities.

The research used a single case study to evaluate the impact of the needs assessment and decision-making process on a small rural community in the central North Island of New Zealand. The objective of the research was to determine the impact on social capital levels of devolving funding for social services to local decision-making structures in the community. Particular attention was paid to whether the needs assessment and decision-making process, in and of itself, rather than the projects that were funded, has had a positive effect on the development of social capital. …