Voices from the Field LEARNING

Dynamic Tensions in Early CCI Practice:
The Product-Process Tension

Ambitious in their goals and complex in structure, CCIs tend to give rise to two types of tension-between product and process and between inside and outside-during the early phases of their work.

The Product-Process Tension

CCIs are by nature long-term enterprises. Even if they eventually succeed, it will take years, if not decades, to achieve the magnitude of improvement to which these initiatives aspire. Moreover, creating the conditions for sustaining such change over time requires investment in the capacity of individuals and institutions in the neighborhood, and the returns on this kind of investment are often not seen for years. But at the same time, CCI stakeholders feel a sense of urgency about the need to change conditions for neighborhood residents and want to see progress as soon as possible. In addition, as many of the participants across the discussion groups made clear, CCIs must have something to show at a relatively early stage in order to gain and sustain support both from outside and inside the neighborhood. Funders of an initiative, for example, generally want early signs that their support is paying off and should be continued. And, neighborhood residents also need evidence that their investment-in time, energy, institutional resources, or political support-is worthwhile.

These dual realities lead to a tension between process and product in the initiatives. The tension can best be understood by defining it from each perspective. On the one hand is the difficulty of maintaining a commitment to community building, capacity building, empowerment, participation, and similar process priorities in the face of internal drives and external pressures toward products, such as better housing, more services, and new business development. On the other hand is the difficulty of achieving desired products or outcomes when process objectives, which are often time and resource consuming, are accorded such priority in the initiatives.

Searching for Balance on the
Process-Product Continuum

The signs of early progress in most community revitalization efforts are generally in the form of product: housing units under construction, new street lights, or an immunization campaign. Products of this sort-that is, concrete manifestations of neighborhood improvement-are of primary importance to CCIs as well:

You have to have measurable successes. And you have to have them for two reasons. One, because people in the community have to see it to stay with the program, and two, you have to have it for your funding. Funders don't want to know that you went to ten meetings. They want to know, "What was measurable and what did you accomplish with this money?"
Those who have been active in community development corporations, for example, in reviewing the history of the movement, stress the importance of their visible accomplishments. "We built buildings. We delivered. We made buildings. People saw, and that got us our legitimacy." For some, even new services are not an adequate early outcome since they are not literally "concrete" and do not produce "anything very visible to show" to the community. Those who advocate strongly for early products warn that focusing on the process of change can become all-consuming and risks not leading to any meaningful improvement in the neighborhood. As one observer suggested:
I've seen so many of these programs that are all process and nothing gets produced. And we can't make it that way in these poor communities...because it can look very pretty on paper and if it doesn't produce real results in those communities, why bother?
Yet, according to others, there is a danger that, in pushing too hard for early products, an initiative sacrifices the community building potential of a neighborhood activity. In the press to get the job done, it becomes tempting to value speed and efficiency over the process of developing capacity within the neighborhood to address both today's and tomorrow's needs. Many individuals involved with a CCI can relate a story of how slippery the slope can be, as in this evaluator's description of an initiative's quick retreat to product:
What happens, even if the organization starts out saying "We want to build capacity," is that it's so tempting for them to take on programs and operate them themselves because they'll get credit for it, because they'll show something concrete, which they won't if they're capacity building. And then the evaluators reinforce it because they say "What have you done?"And it's very hard to say "Well, this leadership has developed, and this organization is now better positioned to do different kinds of work." ...For example, [I know of a] specific case where they started in the human services area with the notion of building capacity in other organizations to deliver family support. And what do they end up doing? Running their own family support center. And I see that over and over again, this temptation to just take over and do it [because of] credit, control and you can get funding for it.
Thus, a core lesson that emerges from the experience of current CCIs is that both process and product are critical, that one without the other will not achieve the desired goals at the individual/family, neighborhood, and system levels. Attempting to balance the two to achieve initiative goals, however, is no easy task and creates a fundamental tension. If an initiative's only goals were to produce houses, deliver services, or create jobs, this tension would hardly exist. Likewise, it would also be less prominent if, conversely, the initiative aimed only to strengthen social networks or enhance a participatory development process. But a distinguishing feature of CCIs is that, in addition to seeking improvements in the lives of individuals and in neighborhoods, they also place value on the process of change and, in particular, on ensuring that capacity building occurs at the same time as program activities. According to one person:
The CCI strategy is making sure that every objective stands for two things: an end in and of itself, and a stage of development, a means to a later end, whatever that end might be.... If houses are built, fine. But the fact that houses are built is a demonstration of your capacity. And that's its importance. It's not about building houses. Because we could have funded you to build houses [in a much less complicated way]. That's not what it was about. It was your ability to understand that you needed houses, your ability to internalize it sufficiently, to access the resources that you needed, to learn how to access resources, bring those resources in and build your houses as a step towards something else.
Stakeholders must negotiate continuously between the two objectives in order to maximize the positive and creative dimensions of the tension, and to counter the perceived tradeoffs between process and product that push CCIs into one camp or the other. Even within a single initiative, there is often disagreement regarding the relative weight that should be placed on process and on product. At one end of the continuum are those who value the process of community building over all other activities. The continuum then moves through those who see attention to process as critical to CCI success to those who see it as just one of several important ingredients. The other end of the continuum is made up of those who value product first and foremost. Comments from four individuals exemplify these four points along the continuum: A large, well-funded initiative with multiple program strategies can often accommodate such differences on the process-product continuum for quite a while. But they must ultimately be reconciled at two points: when funding limitations necessitate initiative-wide agreement on programmatic priorities, and when markers of progress must be developed for evaluation and accountability purposes. For example, as one CCI director noted, in his community the senior citizens wanted to focus attention on "rebuilding" their community, strengthening relationships and recreating the safe and supportive environment that they knew as they were growing up. The young adults in that community were more interested in jobs-because of their different life cycle needs, and perhaps because they had never experienced "community" in the way remembered by their elderly neighbors-and they thought that job creation should be the CCI's focus. These two positions came into conflict when program development priorities were debated and funding decisions needed to be made. The second potential point of conflict is evaluation. As one evaluator puts it: "Funders say, 'Tell me all about community building. And, oh by the way, I'd like to see 80 units in production.'" Where should the evaluation emphasis be? Which markers of progress are important?

Being clear about the position of an initiative or individual on the process-product continuum does not mean being static. Stakeholders report that their perspectives on the relative weights of the two dimensions can change over the course of an initiative. New developments in the neighborhood or feedback about how certain strategies are working may lead to a need for mid-course correction in one direction or the other. For example, it is possible that, after several unsuccessful efforts at engaging residents, an initiative may need to pursue a different strategy for a short while. As one director describes:

Two things were happening. Number one, we were not meeting whatever the expectations were for resident participation on the committee level and at community meetings. And number two, we just knew very clearly that good input could come from a number of places.... So we decided to just kick off some stuff and go ahead with what we were hearing from the few residents who were involved.
The Process-Product Tension
in CCI Operations

The tension between process and product plays out throughout the course of an initiative in four important arenas. One is in the structure of the initiative itself as expressed in its governing mechanism. Second is the way in which the initiative is staffed and assisted technically.

The third is in the activities that the CCI undertakes and supports, including those aimed directly at improving individual and neighborhood outcomes as well as those aimed at community building and capacity building objectives. The fourth is in the definition of success of the initiative and in the evaluation enterprise itself. In all these arenas, CCI stakeholders at all levels are gaining experience in recognizing and negotiating around the tension and have conclusions and lessons to share.

Governance: Efficiency vs. participation. A critical set of decisions faced by the funders, designers, and early participants in a CCI revolves around the overall governance mechanism for the initiative, that is: how to structure the relationships among the institutions and individuals expected to take on leadership, management, and technical roles. Not surprisingly, the various decisions that need to be made are complex, and each has a series of real and perceived tradeoffs associated with it.

The most commonly cited tradeoff is that between "building capacity" and "getting things done," or process and product. The general line of the "product" argument is that improving individual and neighborhood well-being is hard enough in poor communities without the messiness of creating new agency collaboratives, developing new leadership, developing local capacity for staffing and providing technical assistance, and inserting a community building agenda into everything from the initiative's mission to its evaluation. Why put extra burdens on the initiative? The "process" counter-argument is that any new initiative, almost by definition, is going to be time-limited. In order to sustain the positive effects of today's work over time, the neighborhood must have developed the capacity to continue to carry out good work.

The key lesson that the CCIs are learning with respect to governance is that community revitalization depends on a new way of doing business at the neighborhood level, as well as between the neighborhood and outside forces. Therefore, capacity building for neighborhood-level actors is not optional for CCIs: it is necessary. And this will be true regardless of the "start-up" institutional configuration that is chosen (that is, whether a "lead" agency is designated or a new collaborative is created; see the discussion in chapter 3) and regardless of the ultimate governance structure that is adopted by a CCI. To the extent that capacity building is viewed as being in opposition to "getting things done," many of the ways in which it is needed and can be accomplished may be missed. One funder describes how this issue surfaces repeatedly in his foundation's grant making decisions. Foundations, he explains, are in the fortunate position to create opportunities for change that is "more than merely incremental," but they quickly face a different problem:

Neighborhood capacity...is relatively stagnant or rising at too slow a rate to respond to real opportunities. And much of the problem is that we under-attend, in significant and consistent ways, to the issue of capacity building.... So, we are always left with the unconscionable dilemma of slowing down the process until somebody can play catch up.
Governance is one of the most powerful tools, perhaps even the most powerful tool, at the disposal of the CCI for providing for continuous and positive interaction between process and product. The governance mechanism is, first and foremost, the vehicle through which programmatic activities are undertaken, that is, the vehicle through in which "product" is accomplished. But, at the same time, it has the ability to develop new leadership, to make new connections among people and organizations, and to create new organizations if necessary. As one person explains, governance is a necessary element for accomplishing many things, "but mostly for transforming the ways people in those neighborhoods think about themselves vis-à-vis what they can do."

One CCI strategy for transforming the ways in which people perceive their own efficacy is to build mechanisms for resident participation into the governance structure. CCI participants who are also residents, as a group, have the strongest views about the need to involve residents in all aspects of decision-making and management processes if CCIs are to become legitimate actors in their neighborhoods. In describing his initiative's weak neighborhood involvement, one resident uses the metaphor of a train leaving the station with the passenger cars, meaning the residents, left behind: "And if the train doesn't stop, the people might blow up the track." They suggest that there are very few things that can be accomplished successfully in a neighborhood without resident involvement. In fact, the only activity that appears to elicit no cautions is street cleaning. Stories abound of efforts to name a park or building or to move a basketball court to a "better" location that have caused enormous outcry. If there are things that can be done in more than one way, or if the aim is to put into place something for the benefit of the community, consultation, at a minimum, is required. And, although there are many things to do that do not appear to require consultation with community members, it's as if "they're sleeping. And if you do the wrong thing, you could find out very quickly that they weren't sleeping, they were just sitting there waiting."

There is little disagreement, however, that putting into place a participatory, representative, and empowered governance structure is not the quickest way to deliver product, at least in the short term:

If you wanted a comprehensive, quick array of programs whose purpose was to move synergistically and in an integrated fashion as quickly as possible in a community, I think you could make a good case that the best way to do that would be to get the seven or eight most powerful people in the city into the room and find a way for them to cut a deal with each other.
But this perceived tradeoff between getting things done and building capacity appears to be far more pronounced in the start-up phase of an initiative than once it is underway. Indeed, once a CCI is in place, most stakeholders agree that a participatory governance structure strengthens the initiative and is the key to sustainability. There are many examples of how backlash has occurred when process has been short-circuited. A resident, who is also a member of a governing board, describes:
Certain things might need to be done in a more timely manner but...that's not possible because you have to have consensus from folks in the neighborhood. You have to have them buy into projects and developments, otherwise they're just not going to work.... Like our housing situation. If I didn't get the folks in those neighborhoods involved, I could put it up, but they sure could take it down...and I'm talking about literally taking it down. I mean, as the construction people put it up in the daytime, they'd take it apart at night time.
Staffing and technical assistance: Expertise vs. facilitating others. The process-product tension plays out in decisions regarding staffing of CCIs in the following way. Should the CCI be staffed by someone with solid technical skills who is able to put together housing deals or supervise the counselors of a family support center? Or, are technical skills secondary to "process" skills that encourage a range of actors to come to the table and work together on neighborhood problems? A clear lesson from experienced CCIs is that the set of skills relating to convening, facilitating, and supporting others in their efforts to get things done is more important. There is a sense that an initiative can contract for specific technical advice and that, in fact, hiring someone with deep and narrow expertise could distort the CCI enterprise toward that person's field.

Securing technical assistance (TA) is complicated when viewed through the lens of the process-product tension. Sometimes it is easier to invest in outside consultants to get the job done than to invest in developing the capacity of staff or of local institutions to carry out the work on an ongoing basis. That strategy may sacrifice sustainability for early products. In fact, some warn that the TA provider can actually end up operating parts of the initiative which then "undoes the purpose of TA, which is to build the capacity locally. They sort of become the staff person."

Because CCIs are committed to both process and product, they generally need both kinds of TA. But there are few TA providers who can assist in both spheres: "TA for community building and TA for the 'substance' (like community policing, housing financing, and so on)-it's not the same people." The product side of the TA supply appears to be more fully developed and readily available than process-oriented assistance, and initiative directors and staff express disappointment with their experience with the latter. CCI directors, in particular, have been challenged by developing a strategy for using technical assistance well. Some describe their frustration with the amount of time that they need to invest in TA providers in order to receive anything of value back from them. Being clear that there is a community-building agenda is a first step since it helps set the stage for a better match between provider and initiative.

There appears to be an emerging consensus that the best kind of technical assistance-TA that both provides the necessary skills and builds local capacity-is in the form of "coaching." As one director describes:

The idea of inventing capacity in the organization as the goal of TA can't be underestimated. When we finally figured out that we didn't want someone to come and do it for us, and that we wanted a coach instead, we actually started verbalizing our requests for help as a request for coaching.... [The best source is someone who has] done the "it" before and is able to step back from it, learn some things and then, with humility, deliver some advice.
A longtime observer of the field who is also a technical assistance provider describes how he and his colleagues have adopted a coaching approach, but he cautions that it is far more complicated than the traditional TA method of dropping into a project, sharing your expertise, accomplishing a task, and then moving on.
The way we try to do this is to try to create and coach and train in the local neighborhood the capacity over time to do this for themselves. So when there is a problem, we try not to go in and solve it but to point out that there's a problem and try to get the people to solve it themselves. And to my mind, that's essential to long-run sustainability for these initiatives. That the capacity exists in the community, led by community residents, to do these things effectively over time. That's the way I think about this. [But] in that sense I've never seen it really done yet. It's an elusive ideal but we're working towards it.
Program activities: Concrete projects vs. community building. The process-product tension also plays out in decisions regarding where to invest program dollars. There are those who feel that the CCI neighborhoods are generally so needy that priority should be placed on investments that are most likely to lead to concrete outcomes such as rehabilitated housing, expanded services, new jobs, and so on. Others have embarked on particular projects that have had "community building" as their sole objective, such as community celebrations or peer discussion groups.

By and large, CCI participants recognize that neither use of program dollars will, in and of itself, accomplish a CCI's goals. The product-oriented approach sounds too much like "the old way of doing business" that alienated residents, focused on narrow objectives, and was, in the end, not sustainable. At the same time, there is a sense of disappointment in stand-alone community building and community organizing strategies. As one person puts it, "Who spends time community building in the abstract?" Or, in the words of one director:

I think that organizing for the purpose of organizing...has turned off our communities. We are now really, really tired of being organized by professionals who know how to get anything started, who know how to do the flip charts, who know how to ask the correct questions.
CCIs appear to be developing two strategies for resolving this process-product tension as it plays out in program development and implementation decisions. One is to weave a community building agenda organically into all aspects of a CCI's programmatic work. This is accomplished by building in multiple opportunities for participation and for leadership development, commonly by setting up a large number of task forces and committees around issues of importance to the neighborhood. This allows residents to participate in CCI activities at any number of levels, on any number of issues, and for leadership skills to emerge. One initiative director, for example, uses her core staff to identify residents who chair each of the different committees in the governance structure. For example, "there's the loan committee and the loan officer staffs that committee, but it is chaired by a resident. And that has worked very, very well for us, and it really bolsters your staff" and resident capacity.

Community building activities can then be organized around problem-solving needs such as revamping the neighborhood's family resource center or selecting the residents who will participate in a training program. As one director points out:

I think there are a lot of leaders in our community who are not easily identified by normal methods...and it's good to set up a format that allows leaders to emerge and let them do the organizing. We found leaders, block by block...it's just amazing. We started with three people coming, and then we had six people coming, and the last meeting we had twenty. And out of that you see the leadership emerging, just by saying "Let's come together because we want to paint houses [or undertake some other activity]."
The second way to meet both process and product objectives is to dedicate program dollars to outreach and community organizing activities. But there is a need to refashion traditional community organizing strategies to more closely match the CCI way of operating. Various stakeholders describe how organizing within CCIs cannot be dedicated to a single issue or cause. CCIs need "process" organizing that evolves over the course of the initiative, first engaging different players in a planning and "visioning" process, then designing and implementing programs, and then reaching out anew, "marketing," and redefining program activities. Organizing along those lines "keeps people moving and growing and empowers them along the way." The need is for a "coalition agent for whoever is out there who wants to work together" on issues that no single organization could handle on its own and to represent the neighborhood to the outside world.

Thus, as one director describes, there is a critical need for community organizing, but it needs to be tailored to the dual agenda of CCIs:

I think it's still the essential part of building a community: making sure the people in the community have some direction, have some kind of format under which they're working and have some leaders that have emerged from that community, not who've been selected or identified by some group who have a profile of what a leader's supposed to be like....I think the people in the community can organize a block, they can organize a PTA, they can organize an effort.
Moreover, CCI leaders must be deliberate about making resident engagement an ongoing priority. Often, the need is perceived only episodically, but in order for positive change to be sustained, it must be continuous. This means being willing to dedicate funds to outreach and organizing activities. In the words of one director, "without someone being willing to pay for this job, it's not going to happen." It also means engaging the next generation through an ongoing effort to enroll youth and young adults in organizing activities. Directors stress the long term pay-offs of focusing young people on community needs and their potential contribution to community well-being.
The longer this project goes on, or its children go on, there will probably always be points in time where the people who are doing the governing will say "we need to do more community organizing." So from our point of view, it's been very essential, and an ongoing essential, but it hasn't been steady throughout.
Traditional organizing recognizes that information is power, and CCI participants agree that it is almost impossible to over-inform the residents of the neighborhood about what the CCI is doing. Flyers, community meetings, a community newsletter, posting signs in the local stores are all essential organizing tools. Other engagement strategies include working through neighborhood institutions such as the school or the church, organizing community meetings, and developing a "block captain" system.

CCIs are also experimenting with using information in even more sophisticated ways. They are finding that neighborhood-based information and analysis can also be extremely powerful tools for resident mobilization and participation. As residents gain a better sense of the problems and strengths of their neighborhood and the dynamics that caused them, they are better positioned to determine the types of strategies that make the most sense for them. One initiative got its start though a neighbor-to-neighbor survey, where one person on each block went door to door to solicit ideas for neighborhood improvement. As the staff member describes it: "We feel that another piece of this, in terms of resident power, is we have to start putting in the hands of neighborhood people the tools, which include information, because people have to make informed decisions."

A resident voices a similar perspective: "We live in the 21st century... and whoever controls the communication controls the community.... Put [communication tools] in the hands of the people and let them get the message out and communicate."

Evaluation: Counting products vs. assessing capacity. Although it is possible to launch a CCI (and even to implement it, if it is well funded) without reconciling the process-product tension, it is not possible to develop an evaluation plan for an initiative without having done so. It is, after all, in the process of designing an evaluation that specific decisions must be made regarding the type and degree of change that is sought and the measures that would indicate whether that change is occurring. For some, process indicators are more powerful than for others:

For our neighborhoods, the fact that the people are organized and coming together to get street lights and having the attention from downtown, for them that's progress. For our funders, it's not necessarily.
One of the principal reasons that this tension plagues the evaluation enterprise is that all those involved with CCIs recognize that the concept of community building is hard to define and to measure. And, in any case, perhaps there is no end point of a "built" community-perhaps community building is a continually evolving process that looks different at different points in time. Because it is so difficult to define and measure these concepts, there is a temptation for CCI evaluations to downplay or miss the process dimensions of the initiative. As one evaluator reports: "That capacity building part slips off so easily, that unless [it's brought up constantly] through the training of the people you've got in the field, through the reporting system that they have, through the evaluation system,...it's so easy to ignore...."

One evaluator describes assessing community capacity in the following way:

Part of what makes it hard is that in order to know you've got it, there have to be some concrete products. You know, you did the houses or the lot or the day care center or the whatever, and that's the proof. If you do a range of those products, then that's the proof that you have the generalized capacity. And then the question is "How do you recognize that before the demonstration of the product?" The closest I come in the intervention I'm looking at...is "When you have an issue that affects this community, you will know somebody to call." So there's a competency element to it and a connectedness.
Even at the individual level, where measures of "capacity" might be easier to track than at the institutional or community level, there is a strong sense among initiative participants that the accomplishments of a CCI will go unobserved by traditional evaluation methods. For example, one governance member described changes in her neighborhood in the following way:
I see different residents begin to expand their involvement, not only within the target community, but outside in the broader community, and I hear key words being used to indicate that they see themselves differently. It's not something funders are probably going to measure and value the way the community does, but it's making a profound difference in the self-image. And once the self-image is corrected or balanced so it's not seen as a deficit, what we're beginning to see is how people show up more powerfully in everything that they do.... So it becomes very broad, and sometimes even almost lost in the myriad of things that people do. But there's a strength there.
This problem of measuring community building has several important costs. One of the most problematic is that outcomes for which there are good measures, such as aggregate-level indicators of infant mortality, teen pregnancy, income, and the like, will be relied upon as the sole indicators of CCI progress. But few expect that the CCI intervention is powerful enough or structured to significantly affect such indicators in the short and medium terms. The danger of focusing inappropriately on measurable "products" is articulated by one director:
I really believe that the government and the foundations have probably abandoned numerous good interventions simply because global measures were used against particular interventions and absolutely false conclusions were drawn with respect to the consequences. That's a huge danger that I see. The other side of this is then to be very careful about the measures, the order of magnitude to fit an image between what you're actually purporting to measure and the conclusions you're drawing.
The fact that product is so much more easily measured than the effects of process can lead to other problems. In the worst cases, sites may resist evaluation altogether because they believe that evaluators lack the tools to show their progress on the community building front. In other cases, the search for meaningful process indicators may lead evaluators to spend enormous time and energy documenting the CCI's activities, at great expense to the site or the funder. In still other cases, the CCI may redefine its objectives in order to become more readily evaluable by traditional means. One evaluator describes some aspects of these dilemmas:
The evaluator has been put in a double bind. One, you have to come up with indicators that make sense, you have to go back for clarification on the objective, which becomes a didactic exercise after a while. Pretty soon, you're telling the client, whether you want to or not, hey, it would be a lot easier to measure this thing if you just write it this way.
The challenge to all involved is to be clear about the vision of the CCI and to agree on both process and product outcomes that are linked to that vision. An evaluator describes how agreement about the initiative's objectives can work to produce consensus on measures. In the CCI she is evaluating, all parties have agreed that community building is a core goal:

It's been very useful in the sense that it allows the initiative to show results of different kinds very quickly, both inside the neighborhoods and outside the neighborhoods. Because if a group gets itself together, and says "We're the governing body and four months ago we didn't know one another, and today we just held a town meeting and 100 people came," that's a product. And we all know it's a product, and the mayor knows it's a product, she was there, and so on. So it allows you to show results that aren't houses or paved streets or clean lots or whatever.

Back to Voices from the Field index.

Copyright © 1999 by The Aspen Institute
Comments, questions or suggestions? E-mail webmaster@aspenroundtable.org
This page designed, hosted, and maintained by Change Communications.