Spending money well builds public trust

As our newly elected Governor and other representatives prepare for the coming year, and the highly partisan public debate about government spending rages, those of us working at the community level know that the fight over cutting or increasing taxes does not tell the whole story.  We know that business as usual is neither possible nor productive in the current environment.  It’s not going to put people to work, make America more competitive or grow our economy.

What is? Clarity about objectives and expected results in the context of basic values like integrity.  Excellent implementation on the ground.  Accountability – internally and externally – for achieving results.

This is just as true of nonprofits and government as it is in private sector businesses.  The economy blew up because many private sector companies forgot this, and their funders, overseers and regulators neglected to hold them accountable.   I would argue that one of the factors undermining support for government and the programs it funds is a perception and too often a reality – of similar issues.

An important clue to improvement can be found in the results of a recent  national survey, whose initial results were released this week by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV).  The Huffington Post spotlights it,

The United States spends billions of dollars every year on workforce training programs funded by 12 federal agencies, 50 states and at least 240 large foundations. One of the challenges to understanding what works best is that most of the programs use different data and different benchmarks for success.

Many don’t even agree on what constitutes a job. …Job retention is even trickier to define. … Then there’s the question of who gets chosen for the program in the first place. Some select job seekers with relatively high skills levels, while others concentrate on harder-to-place applicants, including former inmates or high-school dropouts. Guess which programs have the highest placement rates?  We are left with no clear picture, however, of what approaches are most likely to help people secure and keep jobs with the wages and benefits that would support a family.

P/PV’s report takes a run at how to make the metrics more coherent.  The Alliance for Effective Social Investing – a big tent alliance of others in the social sector concerned about the same issue – continues to push for the same end.  The Social Innovation Fund (which REDF is part of) and the groups that are part of the social entrepreneurship movement that America Forward represents are all focused on this objective too.  More clarity about results, financial support to help community groups achieve those results, and accountability for reaching them.

These are bipartisan efforts – results-oriented, and interested in adapting useful business principles that can help the social sector deliver.  Not the whole answer to our problems, but a critical part of implementation, and building public trust.

With 25 million people in the US unemployed or underemployed, and five workers available for every job, the urgency of delivering results and building confidence that we can solve problems could not be greater.  A recent NPR report reinforces a lesson that REDF and the chronically jobless people we help have known for a long time – many employers are reluctant to hire people who don’t have a job.  While we spend billions on “workforce” programs, we need to course correct and absorb this simple lesson about objectives – if people have a job it is easier to get a job.  Simply put, job creation has to be a central strategy to reduce joblessness.