Over 5 million 14-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are not working or in school and, in many cases, face the additional challenges of being homeless, in foster care, or involved in the justice system. Often disconnected from their families and valuable social networks, these young people struggle to make successful transitions to adulthood and to reach the educational and employment milestones critical to escaping a lifetime of poverty.
Government and community partners have invested considerable attention and resources to meet the needs of these “disconnected youth.” However, practitioners, youth advocates, and others on the front lines of service delivery point to significant obstacles to meaningful improvements in education, employment, health and well-being. These challenges include limited evidence and knowledge of what works, poor coordination and alignment across the systems that serve youth, policies that make it hard to target the neediest youth and overcome gaps in services, fragmented data systems that inhibit the flow of information to improve results, and administrative requirements that impede holistic approaches to serving this population. Many of these challenges can be addressed by improving coordination among programs and targeting resources on those approaches that get the best results for our most vulnerable youth.
A New Approach
In response to the Obama Administration’s proposal, the recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 includes a new demonstration authority to establish up to 10 “Performance Partnership Pilots” that will provide unprecedented flexibility to states, local communities, and tribes intended to remove some of the barriers to effectively serving disconnected youth, including youth who are low income and either homeless, in foster care, involved in the juvenile justice system, unemployed, or not enrolled in or at risk of dropping out of an educational institution.
The participating federal agencies will solicit interested jurisdictions to submit proposals that detail their strategy and need for flexibility, along with clear metrics of success. An interagency review process will select up to 10 pilots that will enable communities to blend together competitive and formula grant funding that they receive from the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Pilots also will be able to seek waivers of specific program requirements that inadvertently may hamper effective services for youth. This flexibility only will be granted to high performing jurisdictions that then will be held accountable to a set of cross-agency, data-driven outcomes.
The primary focus of this new approach will be providing disconnected youth in these communities with more effective supports to climb ladders of opportunity. These pilots will help to unleash innovative partnerships across local governments, non-profits, businesses and other sectors that would have been impossible or convoluted under existing requirements. In some cases, pilots will help propel collaborative and evidence-based work that jurisdictions already have underway. Finally, the pilots as a group will provide a valuable opportunity to learn whether this model for Federal partnership improves outcomes on the ground, and how it could be extended to other Federal programs.
To enable partners to focus on what works, the Administration will use outcome-focused criteria rather than placing up-front restrictions on pilot design or content. As a result, pilots could take diverse approaches based on community needs and priorities. Pilots afford the opportunity to address these priority problems by integrating previously stove-piped government activities, such as creating a “no wrong door” intake process to ensure at-risk youth get the wrap-around services they need. Pilots could also support outcome-focused public-private partnerships in which non-profits deliver specific interventions that will be measured and rigorously evaluated using real-time performance and outcome data. Pilots would focus on improving education, employment, or other key goals, such as health or criminal justice, and should include a plan to track outcomes and measure impact.
In addition, the new flexibility afforded by pilots can accelerate the work of local leaders involved in Administration initiatives like Promise Zones or under ongoing programs, where performance could significantly be enhanced by additional flexibility. Although funds from Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development grants cannot be blended with other Performance Partnership funds, pilots could involve close coordination with juvenile justice and housing activities that can be carried out under current law.
Making a Significant Impact
The Performance Partnership Pilots are one of several examples of the Obama Administration’s approach to empowering community-led, comprehensive strategies for improving opportunity and social mobility, including Promise Zones and My Brother’s Keeper. This approach recognizes the importance of building coalitions across traditional silos; of bringing federal, state, local, and private resources to the table; and of making use of data and evidence to guide policies that address local needs. Participating Federal agencies will solicit public input on how Federal, State, and local partners, along with private sector partners, can make these pilots successful, enabling them to use data and evidence to guide decisions about how to improve outcomes for vulnerable youth.
While criteria for selecting pilots are still being developed, the Administration may look to factors that can demonstrate a State or community’s potential for making a significant impact, including:
- A strong outcome-focused plan based on a needs assessment that targets services to those youth most in need. Applicants would select practices that are most likely to improve outcomes for target populations as well as the cost-effectiveness of government services. Plans would identify outcome metrics and key interim indicators for measuring progress, including education, employment, and other measures in areas such as health or criminal justice, and also specific data sources that can be used to effectively capture progress.
- Capacity to effectively implement an innovative pilot project through strong partnerships with the necessary State, local, nonprofit and private sector partners, and a strong governance structure that effectively manages the partners and their resources. Pilots must demonstrate having the data capacity that will enable State or local leaders to manage for results, using outcome-focused performance agreements and continuously improving performance by tracking key indicators. Sites must also have a strong track record of proper stewardship of Federal funds.
- A plan to use and build knowledge about what works by adopting research-based practices and interventions that have shown promise in earlier high quality studies, by embedding appropriate evaluation designs into the pilot and by participating in a network of other pilot communities that will share best practices and lessons learned
- Need for flexibility to improve outcomes. Proposals should present a compelling case for how their requested flexibilities under the pilot would allow them to better serve the target population.
Johan Uvin is deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education, and Kathy Stack is advisor for evidence and innovation at the Office of Management and Budget