Thursday, November 05, 2009

An Open Letter to the Department of Education

Dear Dept of Ed,

Thanks for the wonderful grant support you've offered recently to community colleges. With enrollments up and state support down, it couldn't have come at a better time.

That said, though, I wonder if a simple procedural change could save untold reporting and staff costs, and allow us to focus more resources on direct service delivery. I'm referring to “time and effort reports.”

As anyone who has worked on grant-supported projects can attest, time and effort reports are detailed accounts of how people who receive grant support spend their days. Personnel whose salaries are partly or entirely grant-supported are supposed to spend a proportionate amount of their time on grant-related activities. That means that someone whose salary is half Perkins funded and half college funded is supposed to spend two and a half days per week on grant activity.

While I can appreciate the idea behind time and effort reports – they're a way to prevent 'supplanting' college resources with grant money – they're untenably detailed, and they focus on the wrong thing. They focus on inputs, rather than outputs. They reward “but I tried really hard!,” as opposed to “I got it done.” And the paperwork involved in doing them is non-trivial.

Here's an alternative proposal. Instead of the quasi-Taylorist tracking mechanism of counting fractions of hours, measure and reward outcomes. And instead of worrying about 'supplanting,' worry about getting the job done.

We could make far more efficient use of resources if we didn't have to 'wall off' certain people at certain times, and produce timecards attesting to that. And the argument against 'supplanting' strikes me as misbegotten when the states are slashing our budgets. One could make a pretty compelling argument that the entire point of fiscal stimulus money is to 'supplant' money otherwise lost to the Great Recession. To the extent that we can redirect resources to core functions, rather than walling off everything new into isolated silos, we have a better shot at improving outcomes. And if the outcomes still don't improve, then by all means, do what you have to do.

I hope you read this in the spirit of making a good idea better. Grants are great, but they could be even more productive if they stopped focusing on the wrong stuff.