- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Congress has an opportunity to fix some costly problems that affect the hundreds of federal programs that target disadvantaged youth, by passing the Federal Youth Coordination Act.

These problems were aptly identified by the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth, a group created by President Bush in late 2002. The president directed the group of 12 top federal officials to develop a complete picture of what the federal government was doing for disadvantaged youth and to figure out how it could be done better.

The task force, led by presidential policy advisers Margaret Spellings and John Bridgeland, reported that there were more than 300 such programs scattered throughout 12 agencies. They also found the total spending for these programs was significant ($223.5 billion in fiscal 2003), about one-tenth of the federal budget.

Big government spending often passes for compassion, but for that to be accurate, the programs need to work. But policy-makers seemed content to create these programs and keep them operating. Their effectiveness rarely entered the discussion.

Each department has also allowed “mission creep” to invade, leaving the programs far afield from their original congressional mandates. The task force determined that the program activities were dictated by their enabling statutes only 30 percent of the time. The agencies themselves accounted for the other 70 percent of the spending decisions, thanks to Congress’ latest attempt to target the latest urgent problem with a broadly worded mandate, leaving the important details to the bureaucracy. Like a newly licensed driver with gas, a credit card and the car keys, the bureaucracy ran with this discretion, freely experimenting with this approach and that methodology, but rarely stopping to ask whether they were producing any measurable results. And so the number of programs, the amounts spent and the types of services offered grew and spread throughout government.

How this happened is not a mystery. The temptation arises in every administration as bureaucrats strive to show how their programs might be supportive of and relevant to the initiative du jour coming from whomever occupies the White House or secretary’s office. This helps them avoid severe reductions, the redirection of their funds elsewhere or receiving the ax. Contrary to conservatives’ beliefs that the bureaucracy is unresponsive, the task force found them to be almost overly so.

The reality of this system is a mess. Over time, with this carte-blanche authority, the agencies began offering services in which they had no expertise. For example, the Departments of Defense and Agriculture are operating programs with pregnancy-prevention services. Health and Human Services offers academic services and job-training programs. Housing and Urban Development is running a youth-employment program. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone is funding their own substance-abuse prevention programs. These problems exist in every youth-serving agency.

A considerable bipartisan consensus has developed in support of the final report of the task force, with almost 350 groups from around the country mobilizing to express their support for a “Youth Initiative” to be established within the White House, one of the report’s key recommendations. The new office (or coordinating council) would develop and coordinate policy, maximize interagency collaboration to use the significant expertise within specific agencies, coordinate federal research (the results of which are almost never fed back into future programs), and identify and elevate models that work. With this process, ineffective and duplicative programs could be identified and eliminated, and money could be saved.

Coordination should be mandatory with children’s programs, because it’s about what services an agency offers as well as who receives them. So while HHS is designed to house health and welfare programs, and Education has academic programs, both departments lay claim to serving migrant youth. And foster kids. And kids in the juvenile justice system. And Indian youth. And so on. Yet the agencies almost never talk to each other, nor are they fully aware of what the others are doing. Given this environment, it would be surprising if there were not any duplication, overlap and gaps in communication.

The Federal Youth Coordination Act (H.R. 856/S. 409) was passed by the House in late 2005 with a strong bipartisan majority. But the bill, which recently received the endorsement of the American Bar Association, has been stalled in the Senate. There is no good reason not to pass this bill, which could put some sanity into the process.

Karen Burke Morison served as staff director for the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth and recently co-authored the “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.”

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