You'd expect a program to help train workers in new skills would have grades to measure how well the students learned. And you'd expect the program itself to be graded on whether it actually helped those students find employment after they graduated. But that's precisely what a Labor Department jobs program failed to measure for grants it made in 2010 and 2011, auditors say.
Facing rising unemployment nationwide, the Labor Department Employment and Training Administration (ETA) used a discretionary grant program to support schools and businesses that were training workers and helping them find jobs. But an internal investigation revealed that there were few benchmarks for measuring whether the grants were actually helping people find work or achieving their other goals -- and sometimes results were simply not documented.
In fact, investigators think more than one-third of the programs -- more than 200 grants out of 560 that were handed out -- might have failed, at a total cost approaching $230 million.
"The basis used in determining acceptable performance was not defined, documented or consistently applied," said a report by the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General. Evaluations of performance were "subjective, inconsistent and unsupported," investigators said.
The failure to determine the effectiveness of millions of dollars in grants to train people to get jobs earns the Labor Department this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction given by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of government waste, fraud or abuse.
Investigators reviewed 38 grants, totaling $839 million handed out between April 2010 and March 2011. That's just under half of the $1.86 billion in discretionary grants distributed by the Labor Department during that time.
Five of the grants reviewed, totaling $3.4 million, were funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama's legislation designed to help bolster a struggling economy. The Labor Department gave out a total of $92 million in economic stimulus grants during the period examined -- grants that were widely heralded when they were announced.
"These grants will help workers gain access to good, safe, and well-paying jobs, but also help support state energy strategies, to help build a national green economy," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in a Web video announcing the grants in early 2010. "These grants are a part of a larger Recovery Act initiative, totaling nearly half a billion dollars, to fund workforce development projects promoting economic growth by preparing workers for careers in the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries."
But, the inspector generall's report says, officials did not consistently measure whether those goals were achieved. In fact, all of the grants the IG reviewed had been certified as having performed acceptably, "although achievement of grant goals ranged from 0 percent to 100 percent."
The objective of the grants "is to contribute to the efficient functioning of the U.S. labor market by providing high quality job training, employment, labor market information, and income maintenance services," the IG said. But investigators found that both the stimulus projects and non-Recovery Act projects were completed without any consistent idea if they had helped secure jobs -- yielding no lessons to apply to the next round of grants.
"In the absence of a benchmark to measure grants, performance acceptability was inconsistent and ineffective," investigators said.
ETA even has internal guidelines that grants should be reviewed, and lessons applied to future handouts, but investigators said those policies weren't followed.
The Labor Department declined to comment, instead referring to its response to the report. The inspector general missed the mark because rarely are programs going to be able to attain 100 percent success, that response said.
"A projection requiring 100 percent goal attainment of each goal as the measurement benchmark and completely discounting the impact of all goals that were partially met (e.g. 95 percent, 90 percent, 85 percent, etc.) does not accurately reflect overall programmatic performance and effective expenditure of grant funds," said a response from Jan Oates, the leader of ETA.
The IG report noted that ETA's response "did not address the need for developing criteria for determining acceptable performance for its discretionary grant programs or for implementing a process that captures grantee performance results for use in future grant investments."
Investigators found a list of issues with many grants, such as $16.3 million to help community colleges train workers in emerging industries. Of the nine colleges that received funds, four were able to meet their training goals but only one was able to meet goals of placing a certain number of students in jobs. The other recipients were only able to get jobs for roughly half, or in some cases a third, of their students.