Learning Organizations: Supporting Policy in Practice with Evaluation and Innovation – Kate Dempsey

With one-in-five New Yorkers living in poverty, and nearly half barely able to make ends meet, we know that the war on poverty is not over. We also know that without many of the programs created in the last fifty years, far many more would be struggling.

Neither point is news to New York’s community-based organizations that are on the front line as implementers of these critical programs.  With the reform of welfare and other federal programs came greater flexibility for states and cities (paired with an increased focus on outcomes).  At that time, with welfare cases exceeding one million in a city of eight million residents and minuscule job placement numbers, New York took the opportunity to re-think workforce development and outsourced many job-related services to independent and community-based contractors.

Nearly two decades later, important lessons have emerged about what it takes for providers to deliver first-class employment services.  The list includes expertise in growth industries and a dual-customer focus that serves job seekers and employers alike.  They also need sophisticated management information systems to track data and outcomes, often so that they can claim payment under performance-based contracts.  And, in an increasingly volatile economic climate, they need to be learning organizations that continuously assess, diagnose, and adjust their strategies with modifications or innovations.

City government agencies have developed program models and performance management strategies that aim to support the components described above.

In addition, the Mayor’s Office created the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) to support agencies and providers in their learning agenda, and to coordinate anti-poverty efforts so that successful strategies developed in communities can be integrated into and across the system.  We also fund and evaluate new program innovations (such as a newly launched study of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for single adults) and provide technical assistance to help organizations increase their expertise.

This approach has produced some real wins. For example, CEO partnered with SBS to pilot sector-based workforce centers focused on Healthcare, Manufacturing, and Transportation, funded by CEO’s Innovation Fund.  An external evaluation of the sector center vendors showed that participants were placed at higher rates, with higher wages and with more hours worked per week than at the traditional One-Stop Career Centers.  With such evidence in hand, CEO won federal funds to replicate the model with providers in other sectors, and required that providers competing for new workforce contracts (such as Jobs-Plus, an employment program for residents of public housing) demonstrate sector expertise and then invests in technical assistance to build their capacity.

We can only know if we’re winning the fight against poverty by measuring outcomes that matter and understanding impact, both short- and long-term.  Federal and local government agencies have developed their program models and management systems over time and continue to calibrate the right mix of measures and financial incentives.  More robust evaluation that incorporates tools such as participant surveys, focus groups, and Randomized Control Trials helps providers and agencies understand if their strategies are having a fuller range of effects.

CEO looks forward to continuing to innovate, inform, and build on these successes.  With such information in hand, we can more confidently direct the right resources to the right strategies implemented by the right providers.  We can better understand where to invest in capacity building and when to re-boot.  We aim to create a comprehensive workforce delivery system that ensures everyone who wants a job can get the tools and assistance they need to find one.  Our community partners are the gateway to those futures.

– Kate Dempsey is the Director of Budget and Social Innovation Fund at the Center for Economic Opportunity.  She manages CEO’s annual $100 million Innovation Fund and leads a portfolio of programs that includes Jobs-Plus.  Prior to CEO she worked on community-based projects in the Dominican Republic and Philadelphia.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.