High Hopes Stored in a Children’s Cabinet


In a rare Capitol Hill victory for youth advocates, President Bush last month signed legislation to create the nation’s first youth development coordinating council.

Although bookshelves across the land are littered with aging and ignored recommendations of federal commissions, some youth advocates say the council created by the Tom Osborne Federal Youth

Coordination Act could significantly change the way the federal government serves disadvantaged youth.

The council, modeled after children’s cabinets that exist in about 16 states, is to coordinate programs across 11 federal departments and offices, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Housing and Education.

Creating the council has been a primary goal of youth advocates in Washington ever since it was recommended in 2003 by the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth, which described federal programs for at-risk youth as a tangled mess of overlap and duplication, with little evidence of effectiveness.

The task force’s final report called for a government body to better assess needs and coordinate spending. (See “Federal Youth Programs and Policy Taken to Task,” February 2004.)

A coalition of 349 national and local youth advocacy organizations lobbied for the legislation, introduced three years ago by Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and co-sponsored by members of both parties. The legislation passed as part the Older Americans Act Amendments of 2006.

The youth act passed, Osborne said, because backers convinced members of Congress that “this would result in more efficient spending [and] serve more young people effectively.” Some onlookers worry that the act could be used to reduce youth program funding, under the justification that the programs are duplicative and unproven. Osborne, who is retiring this year, said the legislation is intended “to continue to have the same amount of dollars, but those dollars will be spent more effectively. The purpose is not to cut funding for young people.”

Potential Impact

But will it make a difference? After all, a council that attempted to coordinate youth crime prevention programming during the Clinton administration – the Ounce of Prevention Council – just faded away.

Osborne believes there are “enough agencies and groups and potential voters involved that I think it is something that Congress will have to pay attention to.”

Beyond its bipartisan backing, supporters say the council has other elements that should enable it to affect youth services.

For one thing, department secretaries and other high-level officials must “sit on the council and play” – which, in theory at least, ensures that decision-makers (or their designees) are at the table, said Phillip Lovell, vice president of public policy for America’s Promise.

Kelita Bak, vice president of government relations at Camp Fire USA, noted that youth-serving agencies, nonprofits, businesses and, “significantly, youth, would be eligible to serve on the council as full council members.” Such broad participation, she said, should help the council “not just be a commission that produces a report” that nobody reads.

These organizations also will “monitor the role of the council,” said Renée K. Carl, director of policy and government relations at the Washington-based National Collaboration for Youth, one of the prime advocates of the act. “I think there will be a lot of eyes and interest in ensuring that this is a positive step forward.”

Keys to Success

The council’s key task should be streamlining federal youth programming, which is “a massive undertaking,” said Lauren Sterling, a staffer on the governor’s children’s cabinet in Maine, who pushed for the federal council.

Sterling said her state has coordinated and leveraged funding for disadvantaged youth and reduced duplication among services, but is stymied by an array of conflicting federal requirements, particularly for the distribution of grant funds.

“Our state agencies have to take the funding that comes down and meet very silo-designed mandates,” she said. Those mandates call for individualized reporting under various spending timelines.

If the council can align federal youth spending priorities with those of the states, Sterling said, “that would be incredibly powerful, and we would be seeing a significantly better use of funds..”

Thaddeus Ferber, program director at the Washington-based Forum for Youth Investment, hopes the federal council adopts the promising practices employed by children’s cabinets in Maine and other states.

That can be tricky, because those cabinets vary widely in their mandate, structure and longevity and haven’t been thoroughly studied, said Susan Golonka, human services program director with the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association.

“One of the things that’s actually missing in this field is a real … rigorous comparison, evaluation, if you will, of cabinets,” Golonka said.

Ferber believes the council’s success will hinge on coordinating with existing state cabinets and adopting the best state practices. He said youth should be involved in the deliberations of the council, and it should develop a detailed youth budget for the federal government.

“No one really knows how much is being spent on children and youth and what it’s being spent on,” Ferber said.

Osborne noted that the “standard procedure” of federal appropriators is to give each youth program a small annual increase without examining its effectiveness within the overall budget. “There’s no way for those appropriators to look at programs and say, ‘Well, this program is working and this program is really a waste of time and money,’ ” Osborne said.

He said the council’s recommendations on youth development expenditures “should be tremendously beneficial to the appropriators and members of Congress.”

“It will not be easy and there’s no guarantee of success,” Ferber said. “But at least the passage of the bill creates the possibility.”

The Federal Youth Coordination Act

• Authorizes a Federal Youth Coordination Council staff and $1 million annually in fiscal years 2007 and 2008.
• Federal members include the attorney general, the secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Interior, Commerce and Defense, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, or a designee from each with “significant” decision-making authority.
• Additional representation is allowed from community- and faith-based organizations, child- and youth-focused foundations and the higher education, nonprofit, and state and local government sectors.
• The council meets within four months of bill’s enactment and at least four times each year.
The council must conduct the following activities:
• Communicate with agencies administering programs that serve youth, especially disadvantaged youth.
• Assess the needs of youth and youth work professionals, and the quantity and quality of federal programs to help youth in a range of developmental categories.
• Recommend quantifiable goals and objectives, and the allocation of resources to achieve them.
• Identify overlap and duplication in federally administered youth programs.
• Identify, and focus more resources on, disproportionately at-risk youth.
• Develop common indicators of youth well-being.
• Help federal agencies collaborate on model and demonstration programs for special populations, including foster and immigrant youth, and on projects that encourage parental involvement and youth service.
• Solicit input from youth, national youth-development experts, and state and local governments; promote high-quality research evaluation; and coordinate activities with other federal bodies.
• Produce a final report with recommendations to Congress within two years of its first meeting.

The text of the legislation is at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=109_cong_bills&docid=f:h6197enr.txt.pdf.