LaHood's Dilemma And The Difficulties Of Evaluation

Yesterday Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in response to a question at a congressional hearing, suggested that Toyota owners ought to avoid driving their cars.

MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa
MotorShow 2007: Toyota Rav4 by Flickr user Gaspa

Specifically, he said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.”

The result was widespread pandemonium and criticism across the Internet. In a hyper-connected age, the episode raises some good points.

(Note that I am not talking about the new issue regarding the Prius braking system; this particular episode revolved around the accelerator issues for other vehicles.)

Certainly, it’s reasonable advice to tell someone to quit driving their car, too, but did the head of transportation for the nation have to say that? Toyota has a valid argument that this unfairly kicks them while they are already down. Why not, they might respond, just tell folks to go to the dealer, and omit the whole get-it-off-the-road part? In fact, they responded Toyota responded with a straightforward “they are too safe.”

And, LaHood quickly retracted his statement and said it was an “obvious misstatement.” But I think he may be overreacting to his initial overreaction. LaHood faced an honest dilemma: what to say? There is no perfect answer. My colleague Rush Kidder would point out that he faced a right-vs.right ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, LaHood needs to take a measured stance, not provoke pandemonium, and weigh his words carefully. But, on the other hand, as the chief transportation safety officer of the country, LaHood has an equally strong obligation to place safety first and if that means a company is upset then so be it.

The fact that one clause in one sentence bounced around the Internet so quickly adds intensity to the fundamental dilemma that any leader faces when faced with the need to advise citizens on what to do in difficult times.

The Dilemma Of Evaluation

On a smaller scale, yet no less intense sometimes, foundation and nonprofit leaders face similar dilemmas. We live and work in a world where evaluation and impact measurements are the rage. Grant seekers are under pressure to show potential funders that their programs actually do what is hoped and that they have a decent bang for the buck.

Funders, at the same time, are under pressure from their boards and from economic forces to ensure that they are spending their money wisely.

What this means is that the independent sector has become evaluation-happy. And, this places philanthropic leaders at a crossroads. They are learning a great deal about what works — and what does not work. The question is: What to do with negative reports?

On the one hand, it’s important to share information about effectiveness so that people don’t waste their time and money. And, certainly in the case of absolute failures that’s a no-brainer. But most evaluations are more nuanced and it is not entirely clear if an initiative absolutely failed or whether it just didn’t work as well as it could have.

Given that, and on the other hand, what right does a foundation leader have to spread around such ambiguous information, when such evaluations might dissuade other funders from donating and so hurt the organization in question? So there is a strong moral argument behind not sharing evaluation information. But this leaves possibly ineffective initiatives potentially running indefinitely. Because new funders need to start at square one with their own studies.

Resistance to evaluation is as natural an urge as any — who wants to examine their own possible failures? But there is also the broader question about what use is made of evaluation data. There is no simple answer to this, and I am not about to offer one here.

I will suggest that one thing that is needed is for individual leaders to be more willing to face their own fears. It is not a calamity if a charitable effort is not very effective.

Once, some time ago, I was asked to perform a self-evaluation on a fairly large initiative. The results of the study would, in part, determine if our grant would be renewed. It turned out that the evidence suggested our hard work was tilting against too strong a headwind. It’s effectiveness was questionable, especially on the expansive level we were considering.

My report was met with consternation from my organization as well as from our funder. It threw a monkey wrench into things. We recalibrated and ended up doing something different (and arguably more effective, though that too had ambiguous results). Not the end of the world. But — in the moment — all of us involved had a great deal of fear. Our reputations, our livelihoods, our organizations were at stake.

Still, expressing honesty takes a culture that supports it. While easily said, this can be a hard thing in practice.

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

Yesterday, the government released data by metropolitan region on unemployment. That got me thinking about one of my pet peeves with unemployment data.

That number that gets reported? It dramatically understates the problem.

The official unemployment rate is the number of people actively looking for work. That number does not include so-called “discouraged workers” (people who could work but who have given up), people who are working part time because that’s all they can find, and more. In fact, here is the official list of all the unemployed and underemployed that the official figure does not take into account:

Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

I have long known this but have not looked closely at the actual numbers, simply filed it away as a curiosity. But today I was curious: How has the American underutilized workforce been doing over the past year? I took a look at the data from November 2008 through December 2009.

Here is the official unemployment rate, month by month, for the past year or so, compared what I think of as the actual unemployment rate (which includes all those folks described above):

(Click for full size)

In November 2008, the official unemployment rate was 6.9%, and the actual rate was almost double that, 12.8%. In December 2009 it was 10% with an actual rate of 17.3%.

More than one in six Americans are out of work or are working part time because they can’t find anything else.

I understand that ral economists might quibble with my terminology, “actual” unemployment. I am not trying to win a Nobel Prize here, just look at the actual experience of real people as opposed to the press releases. I am also not pointing fingers at any administration. The recession started on George W. Bush’s watch, and continues under Barack Obama’s. It appears to be beyond both of them.

I was also curious about the “other unemployed” people. This is the group that tugs most at my heart strings. Has this gap been widening? It is hard to visualize from the bar charts so I made a new chart:

Click for full size
(Click for full size)

The number of “other unemployed” has been growing slowly but steadily over the last year. In November 2008 it was 5.9% and we ended 2009 at 7.3%.

In fact, while the government just focuses on the “official unemployment” rate, they make the whole set of numbers available. News organizations would provide a better snapshot of America by reporting the larger number. So, in my view, our nation’s unemployment rate stands at an incredible 17.3%.

Let’s not forget these folks.


(Note, the charts are by me, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who are curious, the current recession began officially in December 2007, when the official unemployment rate was 5.0% and the actual rate was 8.8%.)

Education Lifting Girls Out Of Slavery

Some readers know how deeply I care and am energized by the modern Abolitionist movement across the world. There are more slaves now than there ever were at any time in human history. Human trafficking is tied with arms dealing for the second-most lucrative illicit business (after drugs). It is a $32 billion industry worldwide. More than two million children are sold into the sex trade every year.

Image from 25x4
Image from 25x4

What is slavery? Here is a succinct definition from Kevin Bales, who founded Free The Slaves:

Slavery is one person controlling another person using violence or the threat of violence, exploiting them economically and paying them nothing.

We often see terms like “slave like conditions”, or see the word slavery mixed in with paid child labor, sweatshops or similar forms of labor abuses. It is a mistake to confuse slavery with labor exploitation or other labor crimes. If the victim is paid or can get away it is not slavery.

In modern day slavery, human beings are literally bought and sold as property on an international market, for amounts ranging from $80 to $5000 or more. They have no control over their lives or their children’s lives: where they live, what work they do (usually dirty, degrading or dangerous), their sexuality, or their health. Being enslaved is extremely hazardous to human life and health – for example 25% of child slaves in India do not make it to adulthood, and another 22% are permanently disabled.

My friend Sarah Symons is the founder of The Emancipation Network, which works to get people out of slavery by helping them find ways to support themselves (and to help them in the transition from bondage to freedom). Sarah is on one of her periodic trips to India to help with some of her organization’s partner agencies and the schools they support.

She writes, in part:

Today we visited 10 of our school sponsored kids who have been placed in Ram Krishna Mission Boarding School. It was absolutely amazing! The kids looked so good, so happy and healthy and clean, that I almost did not recognize them. These girls, aged 6-13, were all born into the Kidderpore red light community of Calcutta. Their mothers were trafficked as young girls into brothels, and are still working the streets, kept captive now by a complete lack of other options, and by the extreme stigma hanging like a cloud over the whole district.

When the children lived at home, they shared a tiny room in the brothel with their mothers – it was a dangerous situation in the extreme, as there is always the risk that a client would tire of the mother and reach for her young daughter instead. Our partner agency Apne Aap, which runs a prevention program in Kidderpore, eventually took these 10 girls into the night shelter because they were at especially high risk or had already been exploited. The Emancipation Network began paying for their schooling three years ago and this past spring, they were enrolled in the Boarding School. . . .

The red light area is a scary place for a child to grow up. There was never enough food, clothing, supervision or attention and these kids had to become self-sufficient at a very early age. Seeing their mothers hurt and exploited on a nightly basis was the hardest part. Without intervention, girls growing up in red light areas almost always end up in forced prostitution themselves. . . .

Education is a surefire way to end the cycle of intergenerational slavery. Educating girls is the fastest way to transform a society from within.

(The full article, which is stirring, is available here.)

There are two ways to support The Emancipation Network. One is to directly sponsor children so more can be lifted out of slavery. The Emancipation Network pays for their schooling in boarding schools like the one Sarah describes in her blog post.

Another way is to purchase items at the Made By Survivors store. This shop contains products made by freed slaves and the proceeds directly support abolitionist efforts. There is some very cool stuff here.

Thank you to my friend Sarah and everyone else who works so hard to free people. Your actions both inspire and shame me. I should — we all should — do more.