Data for Dollars: The Youth Employment Contract Mess Highlights DC’s Need for Evaluation and Performance Metrics in Publicly-Funded Job Training

“[A]rbitrary and capricious”: These are two words you do not want associated with the expenditure of our precious tax dollars. Yet that was the conclusion reached recently by the DC Contract Appeals Board regarding the District’s process in awarding a year-round youth employment contract to one Camps Springs, Md., group. It is a clear illustration of the DC’s lack of data to make informed policy choices, a deficiency discussed in a recent brief I helped co-author:  Beyond Good Intentions:  Using Data to Promote Economic Opportunity.

The ruling is especially concerning because of the high unemployment rate among District teenagers and young adults. According to recent Census figures, nearly one out of six District residents aged 16 to 24 who were looking for work in 2011 couldn’t find a job.

The District uses both federal and local resources to provide job readiness and training to young workers, but the Board’s ruling shows that we’re not always deploying these dollars judiciously. The Year-Round Youth Employment Program, which works with youngsters both in-school and out-of-school and is administered by the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES), received nearly $10 million in funds in Fiscal Year 2010, according to the recently released DCFPI Workforce Development Resource Map.

It almost goes without saying that helping youngsters with good training that will place them into jobs and hopefully on the path to careers is a key investment that can pay big dividends not only for them but for the city as a whole. Yet the Contract Appeals Board found that the city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP) failed to follow proper procedures in evaluating proposals to provide workforce development services to youth. Among the many irregularities cited by the board were actions by OCP staff suggesting they wanted to award a contract to Synergistic, Inc., regardless of merit or performance.

The DCFPI map shows that Synergistic received at least $200,000 for providing services for the year-round youth program in 2010, so the agency should have information on its outcomes, right? So how did Synergistic do?  How many young residents did it train? Did any of these youngsters receive jobs? We don’t know, because such information is not publicly available, and it does not appear the District took performance data into account when it awarded the new contracts. It calls to mind a discussion held at a recent Brookings event centered on improving youth educational and employment outcomes about why the District doesn’t do more to make sure it funds organizations that use evidence-based practices and provide data about their outcomes.  The appeals board ruling provides part of the answer:  The procurement process does not always value data or outcomes.

Because the District uses federal Workforce Investment Act funds for some of its year-round youth programming, the city needs to meet federal performance measures, including placement in employment and/or education, attainment of a degree or industry-recognized certificate, and literacy and numeracy gains. Correspondence between the District and the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that DC has failed to meet these performance measures for several years. In order to comply with federal requirements, the city should systematically review the performance of all its contractors.  In addition to DOES, the Workforce Investment Council, recently reinvigorated by the Gray administration and with clear oversight responsibility, will have an important role to play.  One obvious way to improve the city’s performance is to examine who is doing a good job and fund them to do more of it. OCP should be a help in this regard, not a hindrance.

To its credit, the District identified OCP’s performance as an issue, and did so before this ruling came out.  Recently Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Beatriz “BB” Otero and OCP Director James Staton Jr. met with a group convened by the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington to discuss necessary improvements in city contracting. The Contract Appeals Board ruling suggests they should attack the issue most urgently:  As the opinion states, the  current situation should set off “alarm bells” translating into “decisive action” to conduct lawful contract solicitation and awards, with the ultimate goal leading to improved outcomes for District youth through evidence-based  educational and job-training services.