Mayor Gray and DOES Director Mallory. Image from DOES.

On Wednesday, residents testified before the DC Council about the performance of the Department of Employment Services. This is my testimony.

I am an editor at Greater Greater Washington and resident of Georgetown with my wife and son.  I am a supporter, like all Greater Greater Washington contributors, of the tremendous investments being made in transit, parks and economic development that are creating a more liveable, walkable city.

I am, however, equally concerned that these invest­ments will end up on the ash heap of history as just another urban renewal that displaces the poor out of sight and out of mind, to be somebody else’s problem, an injustice actively perpetrated by us all.

Privatizing the One-Stop Career Centers would improve our ability to move forward as one city. That’s because One-Stop privatization would unleash the type of innovation to address joblessness that we have have seen with charter schools addressing childrens’ education. 

While there is an enormous investment in and attention being given to our first chance system — our public schools — our second chance system has received far less attention until very recently. 

Our second chance system is our workforce development system that helps people get back up when they’ve been knocked down — knocked down by changes in labor markets both private and public, knocked down by addiction, knocked down by employers who can’t look past one’s employment status, criminal record and address or lack of one.

Until our second chance system receives the same investment and accountability as our first chance system, one knockdown will put you out in a city that is increasingly expensive to live in.

The main thing that is working in our second chance system is the Mayor’s initiative to put qualified, prescreened applicants in front of employers known as One City One Hire.  It’s an apt name for the program, because it addresses the lack of trust that many employers have had in unemployed job applicants that hail from a certain part of the city. 

Job training providers all work to build this trust on the part of employers in their own clients, and it’s wonderful to see the Mayor and Director Lisa Mallory stepping into the gap to build this trust.

The risk, with One City One Hire, is that the next mayor will not give it the same investment and focus.  For that reason, it is critical that Director Mallory operationalize One City One Hire into the daily functioning of DOES (Department of Employment Services), and that requires being more publicly transparent about the funding and operations of One City One Hire. 

After all, One City One Hire is essentially doing what the Business Services Group of DOES was supposed to be doing all along.  It would be helpful to know, for example, what employees work on One City One Hire, how are they organized, and what has been codified from a process and metrics perspective.

Director Mallory and Mayor Gray deserve a good amount of praise for what they have accomplished in One City One Hire, praise that pundits looking for scandal have been uninterested in giving.

So, if One City One Hire is the main thing that is going right, what is the main thing that is going wrong?

When DC residents are without a job, they are told to go to a One Stop Center, known as DC Works.  They will help you get a job and, if you have barriers to employment, they will connect you with the resources available to overcome those barriers.

But what unemployed folks usually encounter when they muster the dignity to step into a One-Stop Center and ask for help is a 5-10 stop center that treats them with the indignity that we all suffered at DMVs in the 1990s. 

This isn’t my assessment. This is the unequivocal assessment of report after report.  The Review of the District’s One-Stop Service System prepared by Callahan Consultants in 2008, a report by Appleseed in 2008, a report by the D.C. Jobs Council in 2007, a report by Wider Opportunities for Women in 2004, and a report by the D.C. Jobs Council in 2001.

In the most recent report from Callahan Consultants in 2008, we learn that orientation classes are held the first two days of each week, and if customers walk in on any other day or after the orientation has started, they are turned away and told to come back for the next class.  No one-on-one orientation was observed.

When customers do make it through the orientation class, they are sent to a computer to look up jobs or training options.  If they have obstacles to employment, such as child care, they are sent to other offices like DHS to find available resources.  That doesn’t sound like one stop to me.

If customers do find a training course that suits them, they apply for ITA funding for the course.  If they do not have an 8th grade educational level, they are rejected right away, and referred to an educational provider.  The report says the one stop, “does not continue to track these clients, and given the lack of intensive basic and remedial education resources these clients are often lost”.

If they do qualify for the class, they then wait for an average of 45 days for the funding to be approved.  Keep in mind, that all training providers’ courses have already been approved by DOES. 

The report says that “the process itself, which includes required return visits for eligibility determination, for testing, and for submission of a vendor acceptance letter, etc, is being used as a screening mechanism” that “could be characterized as a ‘creaming’ process…to ensure achieving federal performance standards”.

Now, Director Mallory is committed to reforming the One-Stops.  I think that her reform efforts would only be buttressed by an initiative to charter private one-stop centers, run by private sector organizations, and held to new, strict performance requirements that would apply to all one-stop centers.

Many states outsource all of their one-stop centers to private sector organizations.  Just like we have competition between service providers of our first chance system, our traditional and charter public schools, I believe we should have competition between service providers of our second chance system. 

Both public and privately chartered one-stops must track the employment status over 6 months, 1 year and 2 years of everyone who walks in the door.  As it is, when Callahan Consultants asked in 2008 for the sign-in logs for the past month, the One Stops were unable to provide them.

While private one-stop centers would be an initiative of the Workforce Investment Council which certifies One-Stop Centers, it’s important that DOES and Chairman Michael Brown support the initiative.  The public employees union will likely fight any such privatization.

Thank you for listening to my testimony, and for your efforts on behalf of the unemployed in our city.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.