As you may recall, over the past few months two parallel efforts were created to guide multi-million dollar investments in community safety: the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative (ECI) task force to guide $30 million of investments; and King County Equity Now’s “Black Brilliance” research project, commissioned by the City Council, to identify priorities for community investments and make recommendations for a participatory budgeting process to allocate another $30 million of investments. There have been some recent developments, so it’s time to check in on both efforts.
Sadly, there isn’t that much to say about the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative, because its activities have largely remained hidden from view. The ECI has a web page, listing the high-level goals of the initiative and the task force members. It notes that there have been three meetings: October 21, November 5, and November 20. None of the meetings have been open to the public, nor have minutes or video been published for them, and the agendas for the meetings are painfully lacking in details — though it seems as though they are still trying to get up to speed. Their November 5 meeting included a presentation on the city’s Racial Equity Toolkit process, and the November 20 meeting discussed the city budget and previous methods of community-based investments by the city. Since mid-November the Mayor’s Office has promised SCC Insight more details on the task force’s activities, but so far nothing has been delivered. We don’t know what objectives they have set for themselves, what timeline they are following, or how they plan to interact with the City Council’s parallel effort — despite the fact that the Council added a proviso to the 2021 budget requiring the ECI funding decisions to align with the participatory budgeting process’s funding priorities.
There has been much more activity with the Black Brilliance project, though many issues persist or are just now coming into view. The Council appropriated $3 million over the summer “to enter into contracts with community-based organizations to research processes that will promote public safety informed by community needs.” Not trusting the Mayor to run the process, the Council put the money in its own budget and is managing the contract itself through the office of Councilmember Morales. Normally all consultant contracts over $54,000 must be bid out, but the Council is using a loophole to circumvent that process: under city ordinance, a contract over $54,000 may be awarded directly to a “public benefit nonprofit corporation,” i.e. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The Council’s intent from early on has been to award the entire $3 million in a single contract to King County Equity Now (KCEN), who along with Decriminalize Seattle has lobbied the Council since early summer to defund SPD and use the savings to invest in community-led programs. But there was a snag: KCEN is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and thus the Council could not bypass the bidding process to give them the contract. KCEN claims that it is a 501(c)(4) organization and that it has applied for 501(c)(3) status (it has registered with the State of Washington as a nonprofit conforming with 501(c)(3) rules); as of this writing the IRS’s web site for looking up section-501 nonprofits does not list KCEN as either, though since the organization has only recently been formed, it’s reasonable to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that the IRS is behind on updating its database.
The Council solved its contracting problem by enlisting Freedom Project, a Seattle-based 501(c)(3) with an annual budget of around $250,000, as a “fiscal agent” to be the official contractor, who will in turn subcontract all the research work to KCEN.
“The agent in the fiscal agency relationship acts on behalf of the principal — the organization that receives the pass-through grant — and has no control over the donation or the project the funds are intended to support. The fiscal agent merely acts a pass-through organization to allow another organization to receive the donation. The principal controls the agent’s activities and has no obligation to provide information to the fiscal agent or allow involvement beyond acceptance of the donation.”
The city frequently uses fiscal agents for relatively small contracts to organizations that aren’t 501(c)(3) nonprofits or are too small to have the infrastructure to meet all of the city’s paperwork and accounting requirements. Freedom Project will be responsible for handling the money and the paperwork required under the standard terms of a city contract. In return, Freedom Project will be paid $150,000, or 5% of the total funds handled.
So while technically legal, in principle the Council is exploiting a legal loophole in order to award a $3 million contract directly to an organization that doesn’t meet the requirements for bypassing the bidding requirements. It’s not unusual for the city to employ a fiscal agent; it is unusual for it to do so for such a large contract that has not been bid out. Worse: at its recent press conference, Freedom Project was presented as one of the organizations that KCEN has enlisted to conduct research as part of its Black Brilliance research project, in effect making it a subcontractor of KCEN and probably creating a conflict of interest with its role as fiscal agent if it is also being paid to do research. In its recent status report delivered to the city, Freedom Project lists KCEN as the subcontractor, and thirteen other organizations (but not itself) as sub-subcontractors:
All that said, there is no confusion about who the contract is being awarded to: the consultant agreement signed by the city and Freedom Project is entitled “King County Equity Now Community Research Project.”
But that’s not the only issue with the contract. The “scope of work” attached to the contract is very light on details for what work will actually be done. It’s only one page, beginning with a reiteration of the language from the Council bill appropriating the $3 million, and then listing four deliverables:
- The executed contract;
- The project plan and schedule;
- The preliminary community research report;
- The final community research report.
In a typical contract most, if not all, of what is included here as Deliverable #2 would instead be included in the contract as the “scope of work,” and not a separate deliverable. That way, the city knows what it will be receiving, whether the agreed-upon payment amount is proportional to the amount of work being committed to, and whether it will meet the city’s goals. But in this case, the city agreed to pay $3 million before it had any idea what work would be done, by whom, and on what schedule. The contract and scope of work also don’t provide any details of how the money will be spent: which parts will be subcontracted out, what they will be paid, what KCEN staff will be involved and how much they will be paid, overhead and administrative expenses, professional expenses, etc. The Council signed this contract largely blind and on faith (and they didn’t even sign it with the organization actually doing the work). Back in July, King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle did present a “blueprint” for the research project to the City Council, including a rough breakdown of potential spending, but that blueprint was not attached to the contract or scope of work, so there is no obligation for KCEN to follow that blueprint.
The contract does include a rough schedule for the four deliverables, along with the payments due with each:
As a point of comparison, here is the contract the city signed with UW for a multi-year research study on the impacts of the Seattle “soda tax,” costing $156,000 — 5% of the total amount of the Black Brilliance contract. It has a detailed scope of work and a breakdown of how the funds will be spent.
Another instructive point of comparison is the $53,000 contract the city signed with the New School for a research study of TNC drivers. It doesn’t contain a detailed breakdown of how the funds will be spent, but it still includes a much more detailed scope of work than the Black Brilliance contract does.
KCEN has already handed over deliverable #2: the project plan and schedule. While it presents more information than the contract and “scope of work,” it’s still woefully lacking in details on what research will actually be conducted; in fact, only the first two paragraphs of the eight-page document touch on what the key research questions are:
This document serves as the project plan and schedule for the Black community-led research supported and facilitated by King County Equity Now. We are engaging this research to have a strong focus on identifying the needs and priorities of BIPOC communities, particularly Black communities. We also aim to identify what communities want to see in Participatory Budgeting (PB) so that Seattle’s PB will be community-led and centered on the experience, wisdom, and expertise of Black people in the Seattle-metro area.
We plan for community researchers to explore three key questions: what creates true community safety, what creates true community health, what do we need for our communities to thrive? Researchers are trained and prepared in several research methods to address these questions. We believe those closest to the issues are closest to the solutions; this research is designed to be done in collaboration with several other community-based organizations and community members in the Seattle-metro area.
The rest of the document is a list of methods to encourage more community participation in the research project, three pages of charts from the preliminary results of KCEN’s online survey on community needs, and the briefest, high-level work schedule through Deliverables 3 and 4 (much of which is copy-and-pasted boilerplate text).
Not only is it strange that KCEN would drop preliminary findings into the middle of its project plan, but the findings themselves are concerning: the demographics show that the research project is significantly over-sampling young adults, and significantly under-sampling elder adults. KCEN puts its best spin on this by stating: “currently we have strong success in reaching younger adults and Millennials.”
Finally, Deliverable #2 includes a 65-page “cookbook” for the researchers it recruits from the community, to guide them on how to conceive of and execute on their own research projects as part of the larger Black Brilliance research project’s community-based participatory research methodology. The cookbook raises several concerns. First, it’s clear that there is little top-down direction to the overall research project: individual researchers decide what topics they want to investigate, so the end result, when rolled up, is more likely to be a scattershot collection of narrow efforts with large holes in between and an incomplete picture of the community’s needs. Second, the researchers will be using a variety of media — including podcasts and video — to report their results, so trying to review and summarize the research results will be challenging at best. Third, many of the techniques recommended in the cookbook, while creative approaches to collecting qualitative results, in practice may be challenging for people new to research to master. For instance, the cookbook recommends “Theater of the Oppressed,” a practice originally developed by a Brazilian activist and intended to engage community members without requiring reading and writing skills. It also encourages the use of surveys, but there is a long and well-documented history of how good surveys are difficult to write.
Once again, the project plan still has no information on how the money will be spent: which researchers are volunteers and which are paid (and who makes the decision as to who gets paid); what compensation community participants receive for their time and contributions; how much will need to be spent on administrative, overhead, professional, and ancillary expenses; and how much is being held back for contingencies.
There are certainly things to be celebrated in this research effort. It recognizes that there are barriers to reaching some valued members of the community and including their voices, and it encourages researchers to get creative in how to reach them. It also recognizes that the people for whom money is tight are in many cases the underserved communities that are most often deprived of community safety; but asking them to participate in a research effort is a demand on their time that needs to be compensated. And it’s “leaning in” to qualitative research to understand what the issues are before jumping into trying to measure everything. Qualitative research is a critical part of social-science research and should not be dismissed or disregarded as inherently inferior or less rigorous than quantitative research; qualitative social science researchers have developed rigorous, well-documented processes for conducting their research that have produced important results and insights. But that doesn’t relieve the city of the responsibility to ensure that efforts it is funding meet an appropriate standard for rigor.
And there are many yellow and red flags on this project. It’s a very large amount of money, being handed to an organization that lobbied hard for it, and contracted through a dubious loophole that bypasses standard processes guaranteed to ensure that the city is getting a good deal. The contract itself is weak on the details of schedule, deliverables, and tracking the money. And the research process itself may lack rigor — it’s difficult to say given how little detail is provided. That doesn’t mean that it won’t generate some useful results; it may. But it’s not at all clear that the $3 million will be spent well, or that generating the same or better results couldn’t be accomplished with a much smaller amount of money. It’s equally unclear that the City Council will get the guidance it needs to proceed with a $30 million participatory budgeting program.
But those aren’t the full extent of the risks facing the Black Brilliance research project. Research director Shaun Glaze often repeats the project’s guiding principle: “the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions” — and there is much truth to that. But taking this kind of approach to surfacing embedded wisdom is high-risk: for the Council as it cuts corners and bends the rules; for KCEN as it pushes the edges of creativity at the expense of rigor; for BIPOC communities as they place their hopes on this effort to deliver solutions for them; and for the city as a whole: if the intent is to downsize SPD across the whole city, then the alternatives stood up in its place will also need to be city-wide.
KCEN’s work plan states that its next deliverable, a preliminary research report, will be submitted on December 21. Then we will get a much better idea of how the Black Brilliance research project is going; its recent status report notes that COVID-related measures are slowing down progress, but beyond that provides little new insights into how the team is executing. So far there isn’t much to be enthusiastic about from either this effort or the Mayor’s ECI task force (whatever it’s up to).
I requested an interview with Councilmember Morales to give her a chance to respond to these issues. She declined to be interviewed, but asked for questions to be submitted by email. Here are the questions I submitted:
- The “scope of work” in the contract seems very light: the deliverables are very high-level, and there is no detail on how the $3 million will be spent or who exactly will be doing the work. The work plan and schedule also says nothing about how the money will be spent, or who exactly will be doing the work (and their qualifications). The most recent “activity report” from the project lists sub-sub contractors and the names of Freedom Project staff, but King County Equity Now says that they have over 100 researchers working on the project, and none of the documentation explains who is getting paid, who is a volunteer, and how those decisions are being made. This is far less detail than the city demands from consultants for far smaller contracts (e.g. the $150k UW soda tax research project). Are you comfortable with the level of detail in the contract and work plan?
- Where did the $3 million figure come from for the contract, and on what basis did you decide that was the right amount and to commit it all to a single contract vs. break it up into smaller pieces across more than one organization?
- Are you confident that the city will get $3 million of value from this research contract?
- You chose to bypass the bidding process required for contracts over $54,000 and award the contract directly to King County Equity Now using the “public benefit corporation” exception, but since KCEN is not a 501c3 public benefit corporation, you also chose to bypass that by using a fiscal agent (Freedom Project) as a pass-through. What’s the justification in your mind for going to this length to circumvent the city’s procurement ordinance for a $3 million contract?
- In its approach to qualitative research on community safety, KCEN seems to be taking a very “bottom-up” approach in that it is allowing its researchers to choose their own research projects. How confident are you that the results will be a comprehensive look at the issues around community safety vs. a scattershot collection of research projects?
- Do you have any concerns about the level of expertise within KCEN and the research staff it has recruited to conduct research, and to design a participatory budgeting process? Is the city doing anything to ensure they have the technical support, training and expertise they need to succeed?
- If I understand correctly, KCEN will deliver recommendations on issues and procedures for the participatory budgeting process to be run next year. Are you expecting to ask KCEN to run the participatory budgeting process, or alternatively will you open that up to other organizations or have city staff run it?
- Are there risks you see with the process that KCEN is following, and if so, what are you and the city doing to mitigate those risks?
And here is Councilmember Morales’ response, in its entirety:
Thanks for your patience as I try to catch up from the budget process. To respond to your questions about the participatory research contract and process, I’ll start by saying that I reject the premise of some of your questions that the researchers aren’t ‘qualified’ or don’t ‘know what they are doing.’
More to the point, the contracts which have predated this one haven’t received the same kind of scrutiny you’re offering here. So, I find it interesting that this particular contract has received so much attention from the onset.
What I will say about this work is that the notion that a ‘bottom up’ approach is subpar misses the point of participatory research. The issue is not whether this is a typical research project but is instead entirely about how to teach community members exactly how to critically analyze the impact of policy on their neighborhood. (It’s access to power that my community has never enjoyed.) We could have contracted with a university and had graduate students doing this research, but that would not have produced the outcomes we’re looking for. Participatory research is about building the capacity of our neighbors to understand what’s happening in their community and to increase civic engagement so they can inform future policy-making. This is what we mean when we say “DEMOCRATIZING power and resources.”
To suggest that a greater standard or threshold is in order is to dismiss the people who stand to benefit most from this approach, which – while newish to Seattle – IS a standard in NYC, Chicago and Barcelona too.
The research methodology for this contract was developed by professional researchers, PhDs in research who are professionally credentialed, and who are also coordinating the research and the community researchers.
Regarding the contract itself, there are several approaches to contracting; and, it is standard operating procedure to use contracting through fiscal agents for organizations that have not established 501C3 status. The $3 million was based on the work and anticipated expenses included in the Blueprint proposal. And yes, I am very confident that this participatory research process and the investment in building community capacity will prove valuable to the City.
I hope that answers your questions.
If Council member Morales thinks that this level of scrutiny is new or unique, then she hasn’t read SCC Insight’s prior articles on the soda tax, TNC drivers’ pay, court fines and traffic stops, the Point in Time count, SPD internal research, and e-scooters. And to reiterate: at $3 million, this is much larger than the vast majority of the city’s research contracts, and as such is deserving of scrutiny.
A last note: if you are holding out hope that the City Auditor will weigh in on the City Council’s contracting process with KCEN, I have bad news for you. In previous communications with SCC Insight, City Auditor David Jones has made it clear that since the Office of the City Auditor reports up through the City Council, he considers it a conflict of interest for his office to conduct any investigations of the City Council and refuses to do so as a matter of policy. This is one more reason why it’s a bad idea for the City Council to start managing its own multi-million dollar contracts rather than provide oversight to the executive branch managing them. There is provision for the King County Auditor or the Washington State Auditor to conduct audits of Seattle’s legislative branch activities, but it’s rare for either to do so.
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