Although it has been getting a lot of press lately, citizens wanting a say in how their tax dollars get spent is not a new concept. Every elementary school student is familiar with the phrase “No taxation without representation!” as the battle cry that accompanied our nation’s founding. To find a modern-day example of this principle in action, one needs to look no further than the local community, where a true example of participatory democracy can be found in the human services funding process. The Community Human Services Partnership, which funds local human services, provides residents with the opportunity to have a say in how funding is allocated. This process is streamlined, all-inclusive and competitive, and proves that direct participation in the distribution of public resources is alive and well here in 2010 Tallahassee.
The Community Human Services Partnership, or CHSP, was implemented fourteen years ago when local nonprofits saw the need for an efficient, fair, competitive process for local human services funding. At the time, human service organizations were completing three separate applications for funding from the City of Tallahassee, Leon County, and the United Way of the Big Bend. It was also commonplace for organizations to lobby local Commissioners directly for support. These two practices made it especially difficult for smaller organizations with limited personnel to compete, putting them at a distinct disadvantage. It also left priority-setting to only a few elected officials.
In response to the growing sentiment that the current system was broken, the nonprofits worked with community leaders to develop a better way of doing business. What resulted was a partnership, the likes of which has yet to be duplicated anywhere in the United States. The City of Tallahassee, Leon County, and the United Way of the Big Bend joined together to become the Community Human Services Partnership. They adopted a single citizen-driven funding distribution process for all human services.
The development of the CHSP and its collaborative grant process not only did away with the separate grant applications used previously by each of the funders but also created a mechanism for citizen involvement. A major component of the CHSP process is the use of Citizen Review Teams. These teams are made up of volunteers from the community who review grant applications, conduct agency site visits, complete program assessments, and ultimately make initial funding recommendations to the three funding partners.
Through their role as members of the Citizen Review Teams, local volunteers get to experience first-hand how difficult funding decisions can be when faced with limited resources. Each year, CRT members must make tough decisions about which programs are effectively addressing the needs of our community and which ones are not. They must decide which agencies will receive their full funding request and which ones will face a decrease, or receive no funding at all. They are handed the responsibility of making sure our tax dollars and donations are being put to good use.
Participating in the CHSP process not only provides volunteers with the ability to make funding decisions on behalf of our community but also provides them with a glimpse into how difficult funding decision can be for elected officials. Balancing the need to be frugal and the need to serve people is not as easy as it may seem on the surface. However, the good news is that citizen participation in these decisions for is no longer an ideal. It is a reality for our community.