During economic downturns, municipal decision-makers often must make difficult budget decisions to reduce costs. However, their residents’ household budgets also become strained, as evidenced by the global financial crisis. During the last recession, Midwest municipalities saw property values plummet, mortgage foreclosures skyrocket, property tax foreclosures hit crisis levels, and unemployment rates reach higher than national averages. As a result, municipalities saw their tax revenue decline drastically, the demand for services increase, and new needs emerge among their residents.
Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 global pandemic has already wreaked even greater havoc on the economy, putting more significant financial pressure on municipalities and families, introducing or exacerbating challenges such as food insecurity. Local governments that can innovate and seek nontraditional ways to maintain services and even increase services to meet emerging needs, especially during economic downturns, can help stabilize their community and prevent further economic decline.
The Importance of Addressing Food Insecurity
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”.1 During the height of the Great Recession in 2011, 14.9% of all U.S. households were food insecure. In 2019, the food insecurity rate was down to 10.1% of U.S. households, below pre-recession rates. However, the COVID-19 global pandemic has created the possibility for as many as 54 million people, or 15.24% of Americans, to become food insecure; a higher percentage than was seen during the peak point of food insecurity during the Great Recession.
Food insecurity can lead to several problems, especially for children. Children who are food insecure are more likely to struggle to succeed in school and experience physical and mental health problems. Depression and stress are other potential problems associated with food insecurity for both children and adults. Food insecurity increases the risk for obesity and poor nutrition while increasing health care costs. Finally, a community’s quality of life diminishes as families’ ability to meet their food needs declines. Addressing food insecurity at the local level can improve health outcomes, increase social equity, and improve communities’ economic development.
According to a 2015 ICMA food systems survey, 46.2% of municipal master plans address food topics, and 21.6% of local governments either directly provide emergency food to those in need or are a partner in a program that does. In addition, food assistance programs are increasingly used to address long-term food insecurity problems, rather than emergency or short-term food shortages, despite the prevalent use of federal food assistance programs. However, nonprofit and religious-based organizations struggle to meet this long-term demand.
Local governments must innovate and form unique collaborations to provide support services to their residents most in need, especially during economic downturns. Public governance has become increasingly networked, and administrators must adopt a service-dominant theory that is more relevant and addresses the interorganizational aspect of the current public administration field.
Resource dependence theory (RDT) explains how organizations manage external interdependencies and reduce uncertainty. Municipal governments are dependent on property tax revenues, so when property values plummet, municipal budgets shrink. Some government officials argue that merging services is how best to manage this interdependence on property values, but RDT identifies joint ventures as a potential option. However, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in joint ventures with governmental entities often perceive a loss of autonomy; the public entity must ensure the NGO is publicly accountable for the public funds/support it receives and the controls put in place to ensure accountability negatively impact, to some degree, an NGO’s autonomy and flexibility to respond to social needs.
Co-production collaborations could be the joint ventures RDT describes, striking the right balance of accountability and autonomy for both the governmental entity and NGOs. Using co-production collaborations to provide services might enhance local government capacity to meet the emerging social needs of residents, especially during economic downturns.
Fifty years ago, Elinor and Vincent Ostrom developed co-production theory to incorporate citizen involvement in service planning and delivery. They argued that public service organizations depend on the community for delivering services as much as the community depended on receiving the services. The assumption is that everyday residents, together with professionals, share responsibility for delivering services to communities. In other words, average citizens are a necessary part of collaborations to produce services; citizens as resources.
Co-Production: What It Is and How to Do It
Co-production is a broad concept that includes many different activities that can be used at any point in the public service system and requires both public administration employees and volunteers to work collaboratively.
Research of a single community food pantry in the Midwestern United States, consisting of interviews, observation, and a review of documents, obtained data about why and how one community used co-production to address rising food insecurity rates. The research revealed six factors the community considered when deciding to co-produce and six factors that served as challenges to implementation. It also discovered three factors the community should have considered, uncovered ways the co-produced food pantry overcame challenges, and identified ways co-production benefited the community food pantry and the community-at-large. See Figure 1.
The findings revealed that the co-produced community food pantry addressed growing food insecurity amid the Great Recession’s lingering effects. It followed local government trends toward collaboration and operated by sharing power, reducing resource dependence, and securing additional financial support by co-producing with clients, businesses, elected officials, and residents. The co-produced pantry was also a source of continuity in the face of a public health crisis and a reflection of government furthering the common good through co-production. Obstacles were overcome through trust-building, communication, education, and training.
DR. MONICA L. FULTON spent 24 years in municipal government and is now president of Advanced Legacy Solutions, LLC, specializing in grant writing, nonprofit consulting, and training (email@example.com).
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture (2020a). What is food security…and food insecurity? https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutritionassistance/food-security-in-the-us/measurement.aspx#security
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