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.
(I also encourage you to read PubliCola’s recent coverage of the Black Brilliance research project here and here, published while I was researching this article)
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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So among the many listed deviations from normal contract processes, the City is also paying Freedom Project $150,000 solely because KCEN is not a 501c3. Seems like an inefficient use of money just to give this funding to the Council’s favored group. Thanks for the time spent on this great work.
Very interesting. Would love to hear more about how similar processes have been implemented in other cities.
Wow. Thanks. I continue to be distressed about the process the SSC uses to 1) determine the scope of a problem, 2) legitimately, openly and vigorously develop arguments for and against various alternatives to solve the problem, 3) whole heartedly implement the best solution, and 4) evaluate the effectiveness and adjust, as needed. There seems to be no skill in critical decision making here at all, just a political “drunkard’s walk”, bouncing from whoever pushes first, last, or the hardest.
I appreciate you raising some concerns with some of the maneuvers taken by the Council to get the ball rolling on the equity promises they have made to the community. But I take issue with your describing the City’s bidding processes as “standard processes *guaranteed to ensure that the city is getting a good deal.*” (emphasis mine). These bidding processes that governments are required to use to contract work are supposedly put in place to safeguard taxpayer money, but in my experience these inflexible processes are often penny-wise and pound-foolish.
For example, I am a scientist that has worked at public universities. One of the buildings I’ve worked in was contracted out through a bidding process, as required by state law, which mandated that the bid go to the lowest bidder that could meet the specifications crafted by the University. The resulting building is full of shoddy workmanship including:
1) deep-seated electrical problems that have required multiple forced outages to resolve
2) Improperly designed ventilation systems that lead to pressure imbalances in the building. These imbalances prevent the doors to lab spaces from shutting (a security risk!), and also have caused repeated fume hood outages, which requires scientists to stop work until they are resolved.
3) Issues connecting the front doors to keycard access that have required at least 3 (that I know of) separate maintenance rounds to try to deal with, during which time access to the building is often limited
4) A poorly designed cold room that collects so much moisture that unwanted microorganisms can grow in the ventilation. Because replacing this ventilation with the appropriate system would be too expensive, the “solution” has been to ask that researchers spend a minimum of time in this critical research room (so the moisture from our breath doesn’t promote the growth of microorganisms)
5) Persistent issues with the construction of the greenhouse so that >2 years after building completion there are still essentially no plants in the greenhouse.
And this is just the issues that I know about in my relatively low rung on the ladder. On the one hand, you could argue that the specifications drafted by the University were poorly written and did not foresee every possible issue. But I also argue that the whole inflexible bidding process exacerbates the risk of shoddy work by forcing the government’s negotiating hand, and allowing contractors to game the system (low-balling the bid and doing as much shoddy work as they can get away with). How many government boondoggles are due to the mandate to go through a bidding process and accept the lowest bidder, rather than being afforded more leeway to go with a contractor that inspires more trust and confidence?
Issues of trust, value, and efficiency are important when you talk about taxpayer money of course, and you are right to raise them in this situation. I think that there is a temptation to view the bidding process as somehow more efficient or fair than a system built on establishing less formal relationships built on trust with community partners. Perhaps all the paperwork and contracts generated in the bidding process just provide a false sense of security, a lot of numbers and figures that reporters can analyze. But despite all the paperwork and specified deliverables—“guarantees” of quality for the taxpayer—in the building I describe above, the doors don’t close and the greenhouse sits empty.
I think there is no easy answer: without the bidding process, there can be a perception of cronyism or mismanagement of funds. With a bidding system, there is a risk that you will end up picking the bidder that spends more on lawyers and gaming the system than on generating a quality product, to taxpayer detriment. We shouldn’t pretend one system is obviously superior to the other, and we must accept that the government cannot be completely shielded from risk. I also think it’s important to consider other guiding principles for choosing contracts, such as the inescapable facts of history, the consequences of that history for certain communities, the importance of having programs in a community led by members of that community, and a sense of fairness, reflected in the values of the leaders elected to represent the city.
There will be no easy answer–you raise valid points about this unconventional contracting process, and I think there are plenty of reasons not to place undue trust in the “standard processes” for awarding contracts. Perhaps it’s important to also recognize that fiduciary duty to the taxpayer is not the sole duty Councilmembers shoud be worried about—voters are expecting the Council to also support work in the community to bring about equitable outcomes for all Seattleites, and for many Seattleites the cost of that work is secondary to that aim. Furthermore, the standard methods of “accountability” could be at cross-purposes with that aim, if what is required for the work to be done in the community does not align with the “standard” expectations for how work like this is typically done. Your analysis also completely neglects other modes of accountability that derive authority not from the government, but from social structures in the community. It is worth considering if the government’s inability to trust these alternative modes of accountability hamstrings its ability to help the communities it claims to want to support.
You are concerned that the Council went through unorthodox channels to deliver this money to the community, but are the “standard processes” really “guaranteed” to give the taxpayers what they want?
Thanks for including the Cm Morales how dare you ask questions reply. I’m thinking this effort will culminate in a report which will reach conclusions that conveniently match council bills pre-written and ready for passage. Same same tail wags dog.
At least the U knew had specifications on what they wanted to be done. How does anyone know that whatever this is spent on is what the taxpayer wanted? They’re already wasting 5% of the funds by the indirect award through a fiscal agent. It was shoddy before work even began.
You are totally right to raise questions about this process–but as another commenter indicated at more length above, it’s important not to confuse a lengthy or exhaustive process for awarding money with a quality product. I write a lot of grants for work; for one federal grant of less than $100k, I had to submit such extensive documentation for proposed expenditures that I was photocopying receipts for ballpoint pens to submit as part of a justification for a proposed “office supplies” budget line. The guidelines for how these documents had to be submitted were so detailed that it took me an entire workday to simply format them correctly.
The government was well within their rights to ask for an accounting of how we planned to spend their money–I don’t dispute that. But our ability to adhere to strict proposal and budgetary guidelines was ultimately not related to our ability to produce a quality product, which was mostly contingent on our track record of hiring, managing, and retaining the stellar staff who did the work and made the project successful.
I agree that there is a huge mismatch here between the amount of money awarded and the amount of paperwork submitted. But sometimes when there is a formal process to award contracts or grants, the items which are measured are those which are easy to measure (office supplies expenditures) rather than those which are important (the quality of relationships with the community, the quality of the staff, and so on).
I’m still glad you have raised questions about this process–it’s important to do so.
I completely agree. That’s why I included the other two contracts as comparisons. Smaller contracts shouldn’t have enormous requirements. But this was a really big consulting contract, and the bar should be higher.
One can already predict how this will turn out – whatever “research” is conducted will conclude that this constellation of poorly known non-profits needs more money to do more poorly defined things. This is also how the council has managed the homelessness situation, with predictably failed results.
I wonder if there could be some kind of lobbying bar for organizations/companies/people in Seattle. Should groups be allowed to aggressively lobby the city for a contract that vastly enriches them? Would it be legal for the city to have a rule declaring that, say, no organization which lobbies the city council could also receive a city contract? That would seem to cut down on a lot of the flagrant abuse.
Here is a link to a spreadsheet that lists all the organizations under the umbrella groups of Decriminalize Seattle and KCEN. It is possible that more organizations have been added since this list was compiled.
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