Growing Fairly: Commit to Transparency


The following is an excerpt from the book Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development  by Professor Steve Goldsmith and Kate Markin Coleman, out now.

For decades, public and nongovernment organizations frequently succumbed to the tendency to label activities as outcomes, and even then to present the results in a fashion that could not be easily used to motivate performance. As chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the parent of AmeriCorps and Vista for almost a decade, Stephen faced these issues.

On one occasion, he asked what criteria the corporation’s reviewers used to rank the entities seeking funding. The answer from staff was: performance. Their definition of performance? Whether the organizations excelled in the way they completed the CNCS applications, and whether they had previously closed their grants without exception. Contributions to the community or the quality of the experience for young adult volunteers were not considered, and CNCS lawyers interpreting government rules doubted they could be.

When, after 9/11, applications for AmeriCorps soared, many individuals interested in serving looked for guidance on which programs provided the best experience. But, again, no one captured that information, and the government lawyers did not think CNCS could require exit evaluations from graduating members to inform their successors. In response, an association of AmeriCorps alums took on the responsibility of conducting surveys of volunteers’ experiences with organizations and then compiling and posting them online to guide decisionmaking.

Kate spent her career in the social sector tackling this very question. All too often outputs, counting people served or units provided, are used rather than impact or outcome achieved. It can lead to false assumptions of efficacy.

We thought about these issues during a recent conversation with Jerry Rubin from Jewish Vocational Services, who worried about federally imposed workforce performance standards that paid him based on the number of individuals completing a specific training course and not whether they received and held a job as a consequence. He wondered why he received a demerit if they got a job too soon and dropped out of his program.

Several factors aggravate this problem in the area of career development. The “system’s” fragmentation means that no single entity has responsibility for compiling and publishing relevant outcomes. Parties frequently disagree often about what should be considered an outcome. As noted before, government contracts often reward completion of an act, rather than its results. Measures compiled for government and philanthropic funders are not usually expressed in a fashion that helps the learner or the worker—the consumer of training and education services.

This chapter focuses on the design principle of price and performance transparency—how the right data can be captured, used, and disseminated in order to turn aspiring learners into informed consumers. Vastly more individuals could reach their potential and improve their upward mobility if they made career choices with the aid of clear, easy-to-understand information from which they could calculate the return on an investment of training, skills, and degrees.

Applying this design principle and producing easily usable, transparent information would reduce much of the decision-related friction that impedes mobility. Check out where to buy Growing Fairly and continue reading.

Growing Fairly is a publication of Brookings Institution Press and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance.

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