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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tales of the City's Incompetence: Why a $4 Million Program to Save Kids in Dangerous Neighborhoods Failed

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 2:45 PM

We went right from funding it to patting ourselves on the back. Oh, and no one was ever put in charge.

By Benjamin Wachs

Another day, another disastrous attempt by San Francisco to save the world.

If someone were to make a movie about San Francisco’s attempt to help a poor kid grow up safely and get to college, it would have to be a physical comedy with lots of tripping, falling down, and well-meaning buffoonery. And the kid dies in the end. Horribly. Perhaps in a volcano.

As a new report shows, we’re that freakin’ bad at this. Even when we’re following a successful blueprint.

This time last month, when the Board of Supervisors announced that they were going to review the effectiveness of San Francisco’s “Communities Of Opportunity” (COO) program – an effort to help the poorest kids in the poorest neighborhoods succeed, I wrote:

“COO is just the kind of program that San Francisco is great at conceptualizing, bad at naming, and terrible at implementing, which leads me to predict that the supervisors will discover, to their shock, that while the idea behind the program was sound it’s been poorly implemented. And maybe it should be renamed.”

This week, Matier & Ross report that I was right, noting that the program spent millions without having any measurable impact. According to the esteemed duo:

“(A)fter two years of funding - including $3.9 million in private foundation and grant money - the eight programs operated by a dozen nonprofits have largely withered away with little to show for their efforts, according to the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst, Harvey Rose.”


But what no one has yet answered is the most important question: How could a San Francisco program DIRECTLY modeled off of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the most successful urban community programs in the world, fail so badly?

What did we do, in imitating New York, to screw their successful program up?

This is a critically important question not just because we need to know where this program went wrong, but because we have a habit of borrowing other municipalities’ highly successful programs and implementing them here. The Community Justice Center now on the ballot would be another New York import. Could implementing that leave us in the exact same place, $4 million later?

The answer is yes, and the reason, according to the audit of the COO and a quick interview I conducted with a Harlem Children Zone spokesperson, reads like a “Who’s Who” of bad government, SF-style. It shows up in five major ways.

1) Spending money on kids doesn’t help if it never reaches them.

According to the Budget Analyst’s audit of the COO, it spent 55 percent of its budget on “planning, outreach, and administration.” That means that out of every dollar spent on COO, only 45 cents was used to actually fund programs for kids.

That’s a HORRIBLE record for both government and non-profit programs. It certainly doesn’t meet San Francisco’s own Department of Children, Youth, and Family’s guidelines to be eligible for city funding. They require that, at an absolute maximum, no more than 15% of funding go to administration. Most funding agencies won’t even consider a program if administrative costs are higher than 25 percent of a budget.

Basically, COO's administration became the largest recipient of COO funding, which is always a recipe for disaster.

By contrast, the Harlem Children’s Zone spends 80 percent of its budget on programs that support kids. Big difference.

If nothing else had gone wrong, this right here would have likely sunk the COO. But, as it happens, so much else went wrong...

2) Vague promises of cooperation aren’t the same thing as good planning.

A program like Communities Of Opportunity --designed to provide complete support for kids whose neighborhoods provide them none-- requires everybody to be on the same page.

The COO planning documents make big promises about how much different city departments will support the program, reduce redundancy, and catch kids before they fall through the cracks. But it turns out that those were really, really, really big cracks, and most city agencies decided they had better things to do. Two years after the COO was started, according to the audit, most city agencies are still “in the early planning stages” of figuring out how they’ll work with it.

Hear that? That was the sound of another kid falling through the cracks while the Human Services Agency and the Department of Workforce Development are trying to figure out if they should get involved.

This was completely predictable, since the original COO plan, that called for all this cooperation, didn’t actually specify how it would happen. From the very beginning, there was no plan for how the big promises would be kept.

3) If nobody’s in charge, nothing gets done.

As a collector of tidbits on SF government incompetence, I love this with a passion, and I hope you will too:

Despite being in operation for over 2 years, with a budget of $4 million, nobody has yet been put in charge of COO.

Swear to God. Let’s hear from the audit:

“Communities of Opportunity has lacked a governance structure since its inception in 2006, resulting in inadequate City department oversight and involvement in Communities of Opportunity.”

How do you have a multi-million dollar program without a governance structure? How do you DO that?

It does have a fiscal committee, but that hasn’t been much help: it was set up in 2006, and it met for the first time on Sept. 22 of this year.

I know I’ve joked before about the city running on autopilot but this is creepy.

4) Success wasn’t measured – so failure wasn’t either.

COO promised to change kids’ lives, get everyone on the same page, and transform the way city agencies work together. But Communities Of Opportunity never even managed to figure out how to take baby steps.

According the audit:

“Communities of Opportunity lacks a single central agreed-upon set of goals, and in fact has goals that are both redundant and inconsistent and lack a clear relationship to one another.”

Without clearly defined goals, absolutely everything the program did, from hiring a director to opening a community center to engaging in a marketing campaign, could be considered a “success.” Even if there had been someone minding the store, they would have had nothing to measure COO’s “progress” against…and thusly couldn’t have sounded the alarm when the program started going off the rails.

5) Poor people aren't gullible.

Despite its massive marketing budget, COO never really got public buy-in or active community participation. Apparently the people it was trying to help didn’t really trust it. And can you blame them? They were right.

Put it all together and you see that San Francisco failed because it went right from funding its program to patting itself on the back: it never bothered to do the hard, unsexy, work of building an infrastructure and connecting it to people.

This is in sharp contract to the Harlem Children’s Zone, which began humbly as a non-profit effort to provide essential support to the kids who lived on just one city block.

That’s it. Just one.

To do that, they didn’t need a marketing budget, and they couldn’t talk about kids in the abstract. They had to go door to door, working directly with a manageable number of parents and kids, figuring out how to help THIS child, and give THAT kid what she needed.

It was only when they got good at it, when they had a proven track record, that they expanded to 24 blocks, and now 100.

They developed a comprehensive 10 year business plan … one with strong lines of accountability and measurable goals. The Harlem Children’s Zone was in the vanguard of non-profits to hold themselves accountable for results.

They also bypassed the tangled government web of inefficient services and contradictory information by doing it themselves: building and running charter schools, community centers, and support networks for kids in foster care. This made their work more difficult, but it meant that kids didn’t get lost in the shuffle. It meant they could tell incompetent government agencies that were still planning when they should have been rolling up their sleeves: “If you can’t help, get out of the way.”

None of this happened in SF’s program, and none of this kind of thing ever happens in SF’s programs. That’s why the “best practices” taken from other municipalities rarely take hold here: because City Hall loves the symbolic gesture of helping, but hates doing the actual work.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is still a plan worth imitating – but until we can get it together enough to transform a single city block, we’ll never be able to change the world.

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Benjamin Wachs


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