To achieve system change, communities will need to make decisions about the level of inclusion they need or intend in their processes, how the group will make decisions throughout the process of change, and how the group will manage the process of change. The structure will need to be closely related to the previously described factors of community context, commitment of key partners, and the goal that is established. Inevitably, the community can be more successful if its efforts are intentional and it establishes a leadership, decision-making, and management structure that fits its anticipated goal and process.
Leadership and decision-making structures can form from the top down or the bottom up, or can be a hybrid. Research indicates successes with all models, so the clear lesson about structure is that it should be what fits a given community. There is no one size fits all; attempts to impose one communitys structure on another community will usually waste time and possibly delay or derail the process.
Communities with a strong funders network or other powerful actors may organize themselves to streamline access to resources through a central organizing body such as the Community Shelter Board in Columbus, Ohio. The resulting top-down structure uses its central control of resources to drive change to address homelessness, once the direction of change has been established through a process of community-wide input. Communities such as Indianapolis, on the other hand, which rely on privately funded faith-based providers to run all of the emergency shelters and the majority of transitional housing programs, may need to employ a more bottom-up engagement model.
In a process in which providers are driving change from the bottom up, it may be hard to get mainstream agencies to the table. For instance, providers in Kansas City formed the Mid-America Assistance Coalition (MAAC), a collaborative of providers, to manage efficient distribution of limited Emergency Shelter Grant and Emergency Food and Shelter Program funds. This collaboration has been an effective solution for the original problem; however, it has not been able to get mainstream agencies to the table or to leverage additional resources to achieve the level of system change needed to truly impact homelessness (Burt, Pearson, & Montgomery, 2005).
On the other hand, if the process is driven from the top down, whether by government or private entities, providers and even local public agencies may distrust the process and resist change. The Annie E. Casey Foundations experience with its Building New Futures initiative, which gave $10 million, five-year grants to states and localities to promote extensive change in systems responsible for addressing the needs of high-risk youth, is an example in which the top is a private foundation with its own preferred vision of a changed system (Nelson, 1995). Federal government efforts to stimulate system change often face similar experiences. In the homelessness arena, for instance, local government agency partners in some HUD/HHS/VA and HUD/DOL Chronic Homeless Initiative projects faced the situation of having to comply with federal guidelines they had no hand in shaping. In some of these communities, a proposal was written with some official signoff from the participating public agencies but without the knowledge of the line staff who would have to be the collaborators. It took some time for the relationships to work out, especially since the federal grant conditions and specifications sometimes conflicted with established procedures of both public agencies and private providers.
Most communities appear to have a collaborative approach to managing system change that works from both directions. Regardless of structure, communities poised for system change must recognize that change is difficult and there will be times when stakeholders will disagree. When this happens, will the group rely on a consensus model or one in which a majority rules? Does every stakeholder get a vote in decision-making or only those that control funding or regulations? It is essential to define and document a process for making decisions related to system change from the beginning, preferably as part of a memorandum of understanding, before becoming embroiled in the many difficult issues that are inevitable when a community truly intends to change systems.