In this era of struggle over the future of government social programs and cynicism about the overwhelming power and lack of accountability of major public and private institutions, grassroots community groups, community-oriented academics, and others have developed important new techniques for helping ordinary citizens understand and influence key policies and institutions. These approaches vary widely. Some are limited to helping people evaluate and learn about current policies, while others are far more activist, using evaluation to educate people to take action to make major institutions respond to community needs and be accountable for their performance.

Different terms are used to describe these approaches: citizen monitoring, participatory evaluation, popular education, learning initiatives, research for issue campaigns. However, each shares a common vision of the value of helping citizens thoroughly understand the policies which have such a huge impact upon their lives and their communities. And all provide the basis for informed action.

Over the years, organizations have launched a number of these “citizen monitoring” projects. Some have been elaborate and sophisticated, producing definitive analyses of the impact of federal programs, bank lending practices, or other key policies. Others—especially those launched in lean years when there is little funding for multi-site monitoring and civic education—have followed a simpler, yet very effective “testing” approach. They arrange for people who are eligible for Medicaid or job training, for example, to apply for that assistance and document how they are treated. Such testing has a powerful impact—it produces facts, educates people who are going through the process of “testing” and research, and can provide the base for marshalling strong pressure for reform. In Idaho, for example, testing led to 18 changes in public policies for the Medicaid program.

One of the first major multi-site citizen monitoring efforts concentrated on the Community Development Block Grant program. CDBG was then a new program, disbursing nearly $4 billion a year to local and state governments and giving them great flexibility in deciding what mix of housing, economic and community development, and services programs should be funded. However, they were obligated to ensure that the funds “primarily benefit” lower income people and that basic civil rights, citizen participation, and other standards were met. A national citizen-monitoring effort eventually funded community groups and coalitions in 80 jurisdictions and trained them to involve residents in a thorough analysis of how CDBG was being implemented locally. Annual reports documented performance in each community, pointing out when federal requirements were being violated, local needs neglected or promises broken, or other implementation problems arose.

Initially hostile, federal officials eventually characterized this evaluation as highly credible and helpful to their efforts to monitor performance and enforce standards. They found many occasions when they received far more reliable information through these citizen channels than they obtained directly from local officials or federal field offices.

This participatory research process also provided a firm foundation for informed action which had a significant and often long-lasting impact on federal and local policies. It led to tightening federal standards on income targeting, citizen participation, civil rights and other key safeguards. At least equally important, the intensive civic education gave community leaders a thorough understanding of local and federal policy issues and decision-making which prepared many of them for important leadership positions. Two local monitors became members of Congress, while others moved onto city councils or other leadership positions in government, foundations, and the nonprofit sector. A high level Urban Institute researcher recently reported that she found the CDBG monitoring experience still influencing San Francisco’s city budgeting process more than 25 years later because of its success in developing a cadre of informed citizens which grew and continues to shape budget decisions in that city.

A more recent “learning initiative” by the Community Partnership Center at the University of Tennessee helped people in 10 rural communities come together to monitor implementation of the Empowerment Zone legislation. Within a year ordinary citizens in these locations had a highly sophisticated understanding of the program and how it was being implemented locally. Their local surveys and the national report aggregating their findings provided important insights into program implementation. They influenced local policies and provided the factual basis for a three-hour briefing for top federal officials on how the program was playing out in these very different communities.

Unfortunately, in recent years funding has been scarce for community-based evaluation and research into policy issues. Nevertheless, many community organizing groups incorporate these approaches into their work, stressing participatory research as an effective tool for developing leaders as well as issues. Affiliates of the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations have been especially creative in using this approach, as has Community Catalyst as it has worked with state and local coalitions on “free care” monitoring at hospitals in Long Island and elsewhere (see “Community Monitoring and Free Care” on page 21).

What have been key elements in the better financed, more ambitious citizen monitoring projects? What components have been particularly effective in helping citizen groups gain and use information about critical policy issues?

There are six key ingredients for a fully developed program.

First, there must be a highly qualified central staff to design and manage a monitoring project which reaches several sites, providing local and/or statewide groups with training and consulting help. To be effective, that staff must be very knowledgeable about: the subject area; citizen monitoring and participatory action research techniques; training and skill transfer; and the organizing, strengthening, and maintenance of local and state coalitions of grassroots organizations, service providers, and others.

Second, local and state groups must be funded so they can employ and assign staff to the research, organizing, and coalition-building work. This requires a substantial amount of time, especially if it is a complex program or policy area. It is therefore unrealistic to expect volunteers to do all the work without staff or consultant assistance. In the CDBG and Empowerment Zone projects, for example, there was funding for a half- or full-time community-based researcher at each site.

Third, there must be an evaluation design which enables ordinary citizens to participate in conducting the research and—through that learning process—to master the policy area. They need guidance as they seek to discover how decisions are made, who the key decision-makers are, what has been decided so far, whether there has been compliance with the law and responsiveness to the community’s priorities, what “handles” there are for changing policies, etc. In short, the research design should facilitate the gathering and analysis of facts, understanding applicable laws and regulations, and conducting a “power analysis” of decision-makers, potential allies, and opponents. This provides the information needed to develop a highly strategic action plan for influencing decision-making.

The research design should also help the group delve into issues which are of local priority. This is essential to motivating local people and helping them identify unique local opportunities to mobilize others, develop media attention, win victories, and build their strength.

Fourth, the central staff should train and provide research and technical assistance to local monitors regarding: the substantive issue; related laws, regulations, use of the research instruments and participatory research techniques; issue development; and organizing and coalition-building techniques.

Ideally there should be several on-site technical assistance visits each year to each group. That coaching and help is highly effective in honing people’s research and analytical skills, and analyzing what they are learning as they review documents, attend public hearings, interview key actors, and develop local strategies.

Local people also benefit from access to advice and assistance on strengthening their coalitions. This includes assistance with broadening the coalition’s membership, board and committee development, board/staff relations, fundraising, planning and management, techniques for involving people across broad distances or in isolated inner city or rural communities, diversity issues, strategy development, etc.—all the key elements of organizational development and coalition-building.

Fifth, each site should prepare a local report which serves both local and national purposes. It should provide coalition members with facts and analyses they need for local advocacy and be in a form easily combined with data from other sites for national reporting on the patterns which local community leaders have found and their implications for national policy.

Sixth, the CDBG project had sufficient resources to go one important step farther. The initiative helped local monitors become national leaders on the issues they knew best. It did this by convening local monitors two to three times a year to review drafts of the national report and participate in developing its conclusions. This gave local communities an opportunity to shape national policy recommendations and strategy for pursuing them, thus ensuring that the advocacy agenda reflected their findings, priorities, and political strengths. This highly unusual level of accountability and responsiveness allowed local groups an exceptionally strong sense of “ownership” of the national policy agenda, ensuring their enthusiastic involvement in advocating for that agenda and assuming increasing leadership at the national level.

Thus citizen monitoring prepared local and state people to become national spokespeople on issues which, as a result of their research, they understood superbly well. On both the Empowerment Zone and CDBG initiatives, local monitors became highly influential with policy-makers because their evaluation work had given them a powerful combination of intimate knowledge of local situations and sophisticated understanding of the “macro” picture.

As our society looks for new ways to make government more responsive and effective and to encourage the private sector and major nonprofits to be more accountable and helpful, citizen monitoring offers an important strategy. It can revitalize civic engagement by giving people practical new tools for mastering highly complex issues and shaping policies to address their concerns—an extraordinarily important and hopeful contribution in an era of cynicism and declining civic engagement. Citizen monitoring thus deserves serious attention and support by those most concerned about the need for strategies for rejuvenating our democracy and renewing our social contract.