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Five lessons from Washington D.C. for implementing WIOA

  • Joanna
  • February 18, 2016

If you haven’t yet made it through Robert McCartney’s scathing analysis of Washington D.C.’s record on helping its unemployed residents get jobs, don’t fret. The piece, which was first published on Dec. 12 and is still making its rounds among educrats far and wide, takes some time to digest.

But for those in the business of implementing Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act programs, McCartney’s piece should be required reading, because avoiding the challenges D.C. has faced, as it has sought to provide occupational training, maintain GED programs, and get more dropouts back on track for high school graduation, is a matter predicated on knowing what those challenges were in the first place.

With that in mind, here are five lessons to take from McCartney’s analysis.

Spend the money
If there’s one thing that educators, occupational training leaders and workforce investment boards can agree on, it is that money doesn’t fall like manna from Washington very often. When it comes at all, as it will be when WIOA grants begin this year, it will need to be spent — lest the purse-string holders conclude it’s not needed.

For reasons that are in many cases understandable, D.C. has been unable to spend tens of millions of dollars in recent years. In his article, McCartney cites “bureaucratic obstacles” that have hampered the ability of the District’s workforce agencies to meet their goals. If you’ve ever seen the impact that just a few well-placed dollars can have on programs aimed at giving hard-working people the skills and training they need to get ahead, you know this represents a tremendous missed opportunity to change lives. With each state set to implement WIOA programs in the coming year, this is a good time to undergo a proactive review of potential red tape that might slow or stall future spending.

Be proactive about finding partners
The district’s underspending was at least partially a result of “a shortage of nonprofit training providers qualified to do the work.” That’s an understandable dilemma.

There are, however, thousands of educational and occupational training organizations that do work or are in a position to do work in D.C. — and very few aren’t looking for an opportunity to get paid to help people. Are the missions and tactics of these organizations perfectly aligned with what D.C. was looking for? Probably not. But could they be? Absolutely. The problem is that few organizations will respond to RFPs if what they do right now isn’t a pretty good fit for the work being sought.

The solution to this impasse is proactivity — reaching out to organizations with common cause to have discussions about what adjustments might be made, on both sides, so that contracts can be written, money can be spent, and real people can be helped.

Perfection isn’t always possible
It’s no wonder D.C. has had trouble finding organizations that are a perfect match for its needs: Those needs are shifting along with everything else in the workforce opportunity world right now, and will continue to do so as we continue to recognize that our evolving needs are different than our current training programs.

But when it comes to helping people get GEDs, earn diplomas, and develop job skills, something is almost always better than nothing. A single hour of basic math skills training is valuable regardless of whether the person receiving the training goes on to earn some sort of credential. Admittedly, that makes the education harder to measure, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exists.

That’s not to say those in charge of issuing contracts should be in the business of signing checks for just any provider who comes along, but sometimes we have to accept that perfection isn’t possible. As just about every coach and sports commentator has said at one point: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Take a chance on short-term agreements — with renewal predicated on results — and know that even those that don’t succeed to your desires are likely to leave participants better off, if only in some small and hard-to-measure way, than they were before.

If you’re going to be punished anyway, be punished for doing something
The concerns that kept D.C. officials from implementing programs were in many cases valid. Indeed, some of those programs would have failed to meet the federal government’s lofty goals of reducing unemployment. Would the feds have come down hard? Perhaps.

There have been many other states and territories, though, in which workforce opportunity programs haven’t met expectations. The District was “one of only two jurisdictions in the nation… to be formally sanctioned by the federal government for failure to meet agreed performance measures in job training.” The other was the Virgin Islands.

If you’re going to take a hit for not doing enough, you might as well try to do more — even if, in the end, you take a hit for that, too.

Find dynamic doers
Under federal law, the district’s Workforce Investment Council will be charged with drawing up an implementation plan for D.C. to comply with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. That plan is due March 3, but the council went without a board chair for more than half of 2015, and didn’t have a permanent executive director at all last year.

That will undoubtedly hamper D.C.’s efforts to present a plan, further delaying the implementation of programs that are desperately needed in a city where about 60,000 people lack a high school diploma or GED, and 25,000 are unemployed.

The district’s Department of Employment Services director, Deborah Carroll, said the current administration has been focused on “finding high-quality, high-producing dynamic people to lead the workforce system,” adding that, “it has taken a while to get there.”

That’s good news for D.C., and it’s good advice for everyone else. Because when it comes to helping people improve their lives, the only thing worse than inefficiency is inaction. And action requires leaders who are willing to move forward — even against the odds.