EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second entry in a RealClearPolicy series, "Educating for Success," on new ideas in education.
One of the hardest things for policymakers to do is admit there is a major domestic challenge but then concede there is not a direct government fix. Most policy leaders, understandably, think in terms of policy. They see it as their job to use policy to improve lives. So non-technical challenges — those not readily responding to a shift in this tax rate or that appropriation — can rattle or even debilitate public officials.
If America’s current and future work problems were as simple as needing more engineers or welders, government could adjust an existing program or create a new entity with that goal in mind. But our challenge is far more complicated. We have a staggeringly high number of able-bodied men who are idle — neither working nor looking for work. The number of Americans receiving disability benefits has increased dramatically. Opioid addiction is ravaging many communities. Automation, offshoring, and environmental policies are making many of jobs obsolete. New jobs aren’t popping up where out-of-work individuals live. The job descriptions of the future are difficult to predict. Unfortunately, today’s economic growth and low unemployment figures haven’t solved these issues.
Some kind of different government role seems appropriate; the danger, however, is that policymakers will play to type. Progressives are inclined to treat this, like other social and economic matters, as a technical challenge calling for experts to identify the right interventions that can be brought about through the proper programs, funding, and institutions. Those on the right, leery of the government’s ability to do much good in such a thicket, are prone to relying on the organic forces of society and the market to right the ship.
But the former requires a degree of certainty about the causes of the problem and the appropriate solutions that we have no right to presume. And the latter’s dependence on benign neglect fails to appreciate that it is the organic forces of society and the market have gotten us here.
The good news is that our uncertainty and government’s clumsiness need not translate into policy do-nothing-ism. Instead, policy can foster an environment that enables civil society to solve this problem.
We should start by assuming that there is no single 100-percent solution. There are more like 100 one-percent solutions. In fact, the right mix of solutions is likely to vary state to state and community to community. The organizations likeliest to know what’s needed, to care deeply about those in need, and to have the agility required to adapt to changing conditions are smaller, local non-governmental bodies. Some will be longstanding community groups, others brand new start-ups; some will be non-profit, others for-profit. Some will focus narrowly on job training; others will offer a range of social services. Some will provide standard educational services in standard ways; others will experiment with innovative content and delivery mechanisms.
In crafting these new programs, we should assiduously avoid two principles that are generally front-and-center in government initiatives: Prejudging who and what will work and aiming for scale. Instead of making a big bet up front about The Answer and aiming to nationalize it from the start, we should tolerate a vast array of approaches and accept that many of them will be narrowly aimed at particular geographies and particular aspects of the challenge.
Three types of policies have the best chance of encouraging the array of strategies we need. First, some portion of the billions of state and federal dollars that annually fund traditional institutions of higher education should be freed up to support a constellation of providers aiming to prepare individuals for the workforce. Second, states and the federal government should develop grant programs aimed at seeding and developing new non-governmental service providers. Third, Uncle Sam, as well as state and local governments, should support other types of innovative approaches, including experimenting with social-impact bonds and encouraging providers to develop effective income-share agreements that make high-quality services available to more students.
These various policy approaches are similar in that they enable individuals to access training and support from a range of entities but without the government’s deciding at the front end which types of training, support, or providers are preferable. Accountability can come in a number of “back-end” forms. The sector might be incentivized to develop industry standards for performance. Civil society bodies could create a rating system for providers. The government could decide to only continue funding operators that meet agreed-upon performance targets.
But one larger point should be underscored. For decades, scholars and observers on the left and right have noted with regret that America’s “mediating institutions” have deteriorated. These voluntary associations, like community-based groups, local philanthropies, faith-based organizations, and unions, help individuals and bind communities together in numerous ways. A big part of the reason they’ve atrophied is because larger and larger entities, from the federal government to multinational corporations, have taken away or been given the work of these smaller, local bodies. If we want vigorous local associations to return, we have to catalyze their development and enable them to add value to the lives of citizens, families, and neighborhoods.
So while the approach outlined here — a policy strategy built on decentralization and social entrepreneurialism — is designed to help solve our work problems, it also has a longer-term aspiration. We need governments, when they face a stubborn problem that doesn’t have a clear policy remedy, to avoid both forced technocratic fixes and studied nonengagement. We instead need to get government to use policy to help communities help themselves.
Andy Smarick is civil society, education and work director at the R Street Institute.