Paul Corrigan’s 1979 book “Schooling the Smash Street Kids”, detailed the experience of street-corner kids in Sunderland in the UK caught in the transition between school and work. Some of those kids didn’t make it through the transition and we can imagine some of them being identified three decades later in some of the UK’s ethnographic studies of “Troubled Families.”
I’ve written about the Troubled Families Initiative before because of its focus on community partnerships, place-based interventions, and as an example of a shift in governance in which governments will (should) increasingly take on a role as stewards in harnessing and focusing the resources and capital of a broader range of organizations. The initiative was also data-driven in that a lot of effort was made at the outset to clearly identify families having the most frequent contact with the police, courts, probation officers, social service agencies and emergency services – and to estimate the financial impact of current programs serving this population.
The virtues of this sort of “Collective Impact” initiative in the human services field has been widely discussed in Canada (if I had a quarter for every slide deck I’ve seen, etc.) but I’m seeing the most promising example of this approach in the government of Ontario’s Collective Impact for Disconnected Youth initiative (CIDY) which is about “aligning efforts for better outcomes for youth Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET)”.
Collective Impact approaches focus on deeply entrenched, complex social problems with a structured approach to collaboration across government, business, philanthropic, non-profit organizations and citizens – with an emphasis on mobilizing a range of assets as opposed to single program approaches. The province’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS) seems to be hitting all the right buttons with this one, especially with data collection and the early creation of a broad-based leadership table.
It’s surprising to some that governments often launch pricey initiatives without good information on the target population, communities or clients. The CIDY initiative is refreshingly different. MCYS has identified 173,000 NEET youth between ages 15-24 in Ontario. Without intervention, the total lifetime cost of the current NEET cohort is between $127B and $170B.
And, as might be expected, the challenges faced by NEET youth are complex and multi-faceted. They are not well served by fragmented services crossing the fields of health, education, housing, justice and social services, each with its own siloed policy and funding streams. We are talking about a population that encompasses homelessness (with a high proportion of LGBTQ youth), single young mothers, addictions and mental health, disability, those leaving the justice or child welfare systems, and racialized, newcomer and Indigenous youth.
The importance of place-based interventions is highlighted by the following NEET statistics across communities in Ontario:
- Sudbury has the highest NEET Rate at 13.2% -- nearly 4% above the provincial average.
- The youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) in Windsor is 19.9% meaning that one-in-five Windsor youth who are searching for a job cannot find one.
- Rainbow District School Board which contains many schools in Sudbury, has one of the lowest five-year high school graduation rates in Ontario (72.8%) compared to the provincial average of 85.5%.
- Thunder Bay and Sudbury have the highest youth violent crime rates in Ontario, with 1,938 and 1,728 incidents respectively per 100,000 youth aged 12-17.
- In Windsor, Kingston and London, more than 20% of youth ages 15-24 live in low income households.
CIDY will importantly also align with a range of recent government initiatives designed to grow and enable community capacity such as Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, Community Hubs, Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, and the Homelessness Strategy (which hopefully are already finding synergies). Also impressive is the care being taken at the front end to learn from past mistakes and failures as well as successful collaborative approaches to previously intractable social problems.
What outcomes are desired out of this? While NEET rates will be a key guiding outcome, other outcomes will be placed-based and developed jointly with communities. These will focus on the most pressing concerns identified by communities. For example, outcomes could include:
- Increasing five-year graduation rates;
- Increasing post-secondary participation rates; and
- Reducing unemployment rates.
The ministry-based silos in government won’t disappear of course but when these emerge as obstacles to community-based priorities, a proposed policy and program alignment process will trouble-shoot and resolve the issues. The success of this problem-solving function will be critical so it should be staffed by enthusiastic advocates of the initiative, albeit with the judgement necessary to maintain productive relationships – and of course, to keep ministers out of trouble.