Monday, February 04, 2013

Zen and the Art of Program Development

Here is how the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative began (from the press release):
Governor Quinn Announces $50 Million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative 
Comprehensive Effort will Keep Young People Safe; Offer Mentoring, Job Opportunities

CHICAGO – October 6, 2010. Governor Pat Quinn today announced the start of a comprehensive effort to help strengthen and revitalize Illinois’ urban communities. Based largely on feedback from the Governor’s Anti-Violence Commission, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative will focus on rebuilding Illinois’ most vulnerable neighborhoods and protecting young people by offering more job and education opportunities. It will also provide small businesses with access to capital and technical expertise, which will help them expand and create new jobs.

“This is a comprehensive and concerted effort to keep our young people safe, off the streets and in school. The best social program is a job – and this initiative will provide people of all ages with the skills to compete for the jobs of today and tomorrow,” Governor Quinn said. “The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative is also about giving small businesses the resources to turn promising ideas into emerging companies, which will lead to better jobs for more people.”

The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative follows a summer in Chicago that attracted national headlines due to dozens of shootings in several neighborhoods. The initiative will begin in a number of Chicago neighborhoods the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority has identified as having the most need, and will later be expanded to additional communities throughout the state.

The initiative’s goal of revitalizing vulnerable urban communities will be accomplished in a number of ways: by engaging young people; offering job training for adults and small businesses; and by providing funding for small businesses. By helping young people avoid the influence of drugs and violence, the initiative will reduce the risk factors associated with violence.

This public-private partnership between the state and community organizations will reach an estimated 18,000 youth through programs such as: Mentoring Plus Jobs, which will provide youths with part-time jobs and additional support; the Parent Leadership Program, which will offer parents training that will help them become community leaders; and school-based counseling at K-12 schools.

Job training for adults and small businesses will also be a vital component of the initiative. Funding through the Training for Tomorrow Program will help non-profit, community based organizations identify local industries having difficulty recruiting skilled, entry level workers. It will train and place more than 1,700 people into jobs over the next two years.
Questions surround $55 million program to cut violence in Chicago
By Scott Zamost, Drew Griffin, and Elizabeth Nunez, CNN Special Investigations Unit -- updated 2:04 PM EST, Mon December 3, 2012

Chicago (CNN) -- On a chilly afternoon this fall, teenagers across Chicago's South Side were busy at work, earning $8.75 an hour to hand out fliers with a message of non-violence.

"Our message that we're giving out today is about being healthy," said 18-year-old Lucia Eloisa. "One of the key pointers is about taking time to reflect and seek inner peace."

Eloisa's part-time job was paid for by an ambitious state-funded program to keep at-risk teenagers out of trouble. It pumped nearly $55 million into Chicago's toughest neighborhoods and three of its suburbs to stem unrelenting gang violence. A four-month CNN investigation found that not only did the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) pay teens to hand out fliers promoting inner peace, it also paid these at-risk teens to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the governor, and even attend a yoga class to learn how to handle stress.

Earlier this year, state legislators passed a resolution demanding the state conduct an audit on the program. That audit is under way. Supporters say the program kept kids off the streets of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods and helped expose inner city youth to a broader culture, as well as cultivate future leaders.

But critics wonder if it was just a waste of taxpayers' money, considering that the city's murder rate has risen since the program began two years ago.

Or worse: was it just an effort to buy votes ahead of a tight race for governor?
First, let it be said that I doubt there is a policy or program anywhere that is so good that you could not find someone willing to say it sucks.  Because as any fool who is familiar with Pohl's Law knows, "Nothing is so good that somebody, somewhere, will not hate it."

So there's that.

Second, there is currently a public audit of the program ongoing, which, like every other ongoing Illinois public audit, you can look up here if you are so inclined.  And while it is not impossible to use an audit as an instrument of political revenge, if one is wise, one avoids rattling those sabers too loudly until after the final draft of the post mortem is in.

All that being said, I am not agnostic on this subject: I believe deeply in efforts to tackle the problems that drove the creation of this project and deeply wish to see them succeed. In fact, during my wild years I did a little time working at the periphery of this very program. I was in the mix long enough to see that it was starting off very badly, and close enough to see why it would probably end up in a very public ditch. 

The NRI was an attempt to fire everything -- yoga, parades, mentoring, job training, capitalizing small businesses, ex-offender re-entry -- at a crisis all at once, which might be a fine way of solving some kinds of problems, but in this case many of the elements of that "all at once" appear to have been either poorly coordinated or made up on the fly.  Which can happen when, instead of starting with a well-designed, battle-tested model, you start with an assload of money, a diffused sense of alarm, an army of well-intentioned stakeholders and financially-interested constituent groups and a bunch of non-negotiable expenditure deadlines all rolling hard down a very fast track...
After a series of open meetings in Chicago and other areas, the commission issued a list of recommendations on September 13, 2010, according to the commission's chair, Teresa Garate. Those recommendations -- like the program itself -- focused on four areas: counseling and alternative education, prisoner re-entry, job creation and community development.

But a week before those recommendations were issued, Chicago aldermen began receiving a letter from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority's (IVPA) director about the NRI program. The September 7, 2010, letter stated that "the initiative is on a very fast track, so we are requesting that you respond immediately to this request." The IVPA is the state agency that oversaw the NRI.
...and try to reverse-engineer-invent a program to simultaneously thread all of these needles in a great, big hurry: 
The program was set up so quickly that there was no formal way to measure its results, according to hundreds of documents reviewed by CNN and interviews with those who participated in the program
Which is maddening, both because there are so many good programs that are starving for lack of funding,  and because nothing quite takes the legs out from under my Liberal enthusiasm as the spectacle of another high-profile public project goofing up in a way that makes it easier for people to believe that government is inherently incompetent or corrupt.

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