Transactional versus Transformative Change

TARGETED UNIVERSALISM policies encompass both transactional policy changes and transformative policy changes. Transactional changes reform or eliminate a single barrier within a structure to free groups to achieve the universal goal. Transactional change largely works within an existing set of institutional and structural arrangements. Transformative changes restructure the system itself rather than reform some relationship within the existing structure. To differentiate these types of change is not to diminish the value and urgency of either. 

Transactional changes, for example, have provided vast improvements in the material living conditions for people who struggle the most—in particular people of color and the extremely poor. For example, removing unnecessary licensure requirements or criminal background checks that have a disparate impact can help people move toward the universal goal of securing income, food, or shelter. To achieve the full potential of targeted universalism, however, we have to understand the way urgent needs and aspirations may not be adequately served by the existing system. 

At the extreme, the system itself may function to help some and deny others a more fulsome range of life opportunities. Moreover, a system can mutate and evolve over time, either as a result of policy interventions or as a result of decentralized decision-making. Either way, there may be a need for transformative change. We note that there is not an inherent tension between transactional and transformational interventions. But when possible, these efforts should be aligned. 

Transformative changes are more fundamental changes in the structures and systems that shape group outcomes. Transformative changes can be more durable over time and have greater effects as the causes of problems are alleviated—not just their effects. This is the logic behind targeted universalism’s focus on structures. Most critically, transactional changes should be aligned within the larger ambitions of transformative changes and the universal goals they aspire to realize.

In some circumstances, policies and strategies developed through a targeted universalism framework may be simple, transactional interventions that move groups to the universal goal. For example, the Baltimore City Health Department helped launch a special program to provide eyeglasses to primary and secondary schoolchildren after a screening program discovered that as many as 15,000 students in their school system needed glasses.50 This program institutionalized a screening service and provided eyeglasses at no cost, providing 1,000 free eyeglasses in the first 10 months. The service targeted individuals through a screening process based upon a recognition that some students were unable to reach the universal goal of receiving an adequate education without them, but it is an example of a targeted universalism strategy. 

This intervention responded to individuals that were lacking a more basic capacity needed to participate in traditional classroom learning, but did not fundamentally change classroom structure, curricular or resources. The move was “smaller scale” in that it was not necessarily leading to radical transformation of structures that shape learning outcomes. However, the intervention resulted in regular practice of eye screening, which changed institutional practice. However, if the universal goal is to obtain adequate education, then we know that after eye care needs are met, there are a host of other barriers that need to be addressed. Targeted universalism provides direction for taking care of urgent needs that are obvious but not recognized. And it provides for a long-term agenda for a series of needs that change over time. 

Consider the problem that exists in some schools— that of creating proficiency in mathematics as one feature of a broader problem with many students obtaining quality education. If one problem for non-native English speakers is English language learning, then the transactional fix is to either provide supplemental English instruction or language-appropriate supports. Transactional interventions that achieve universal goals should be pursued where appropriate. But one should not overfocus on transactional change when the need is for transformational. The transactional is often more immediate and easier but may not deliver the desired outcome. But when done right, many transactional changes can support transformational change. But there are times that transactional changes undermine needed transformational change. Targeted universalism encodes and derives immediate changes and their placement within longer-term efforts for durable change. 

In the case above, it’s very possible that problems associated with that particular group of students—that of less comprehension of the language of instruction—would be evident without going through the process of creating a targeted universalism platform. So what is the value of the effort if it’s largely understood? One possible answer is that a targeted universalism platform would seek solutions that impact entire systems rather than address symptoms. To bypass the longer and more arduous process set out limits the longer-term benefits of targeted universalism. It may be that a problem finds a short-term solution through exploring other types of strategies or policy. However, the longer-term and complementary set of strategies is left unexplored, the opportunity for maintaining and creating broad coalitions is missed, and identifying a prioritized set of changes beyond that of the most immediate change is neglected. And, importantly, as the targeted universal analysis is quite deep, it may be that the strategy to address urgent effects is not going to be up to the task of countering structural effects—even in the short term.

Both transformative and transactional changes are necessary. Coordinating the timeline and preliminary work to implement a set of strategies is necessary and helps to realize what is immediately possible in a larger vision of great change. This coordination helps to not feel overwhelmed with the profound changes we need. We may hold great vision for the world, and it can seem overwhelming to have that vision and work toward it. Seeing the changes over which we may have control can seem to fall short of the large changes we seek. 

However, looking at how we can coordinate this work is encouraging and can shed light on the utility and necessity of what may seem like small changes. For example, creating women-only swim sessions at the public pool may be a small reorganization of public resources. However, this creates opportunities for women of various faiths who prefer these conditions on religious grounds, and for others, to practice a skill that can save their lives and the lives of others. Ultimately, changing the institutional practice of giving unique access to specific people otherwise deprived of resources can be an instructive example for community members who are not aware of this access problem. It is also instructive for those who feel that those groups of people are undeserving of resources—it is a clear demonstration that official public institutions recognize the legitimacy of fairer access.

Targeted universalism offers to organize these “smaller” and more practicable changes around long-term ambitious changes. The universal goal a particular coalition is working on may be very narrow, very specific. But the goal of universal goals—the goal of goals—can be organized around the following goals:

  • Reclaim government so it serves the people.
  • Build places for public debate, influence, and service—building the capacity for people to exercise collective agency.
  • Change the economy so it serves people, not corporations or only the elite.

These three metagoals can orient and align an infinite array of targeted universal agendas. They can be thought of as framing or providing the landscape on which we look for systemic and transformational change through targeted universalism.

There is one final caveat. Recognizing that there are many factors that contribute to a problem, one might suppose that all the factors must be addressed at once. This is often referred to as a comprehensive approach. But this assumption is mistaken. Instead, it is often possible to identify strategic leverage points that will reverberate through the system without reconstructing the entire system. While this may be possible, it is important to understand that components of the system may be interrelated in a nonlinear way.51

  • 50. Students who had difficulty reading were more likely to be identified as having a learning disability or behavior problem. “Vision for Baltimore,” Baltimore City Health Department, August 17, 2016, https://health.baltimorecity. gov/VisionForBaltimore; Katie Pearce, “Vision for Baltimore Celebrates 1,000 Free Pairs of Glasses for City Students,” The Hub, Johns Hopkins University, March 8, 2017, https://
  • 51. This insight is derived from a complex systems theory. Stephen Menendian and Caitlin Watt, “Systems Thinking and Race” (Columbus, OH: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, December 2008).