Why citizen engagement and assessment matter to developing a tribal workforce

Participants Deanna Gomez and Isabella Swan of the Voices Research Project, a survey initiative of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Ventures (CRSTV). (Photo: CRSTV)

Op-ed Series: Building the human capacity to rebuild tribal nations

NCAI PTG

In its multi-year project examining tribal workforce development approaches across the country, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance (PTG) worked to identify and document key foundational strategies that empower tribal innovation and, in turn, workforce development success.

Distilling lessons learned from that endeavor, PTG identified 15 strategic considerations that tribal leaders, workforce development staff, and other decision-makers must tackle as they craft workforce development approaches capable of achieving their definition of what “success” looks like for tribal citizens and the nation as a whole. These mission critical aspects of workforce development have a direct bearing on the ability of tribal workforce development approaches to make a transformative, sustainable difference. The following explores two of those considerations: citizen engagement and assessment.

Citizen Engagement

Creating a truly self-governed, tribal workforce development approach and fostering its success over time is no small feat. Often, it requires a sea change in how tribal government works, how it serves its citizens, and the expectations citizens have regarding the role government plays in enriching their lives. To take root and grow, it must have sustained investments of various types from all of a tribal nation’s key players – its political leaders, programmatic leaders, employees, and most importantly, its citizens. Simply put, the people must be on board before the nation-building train leaves the station, and they must remain on board. According to one synopsis of Native nation building, “citizens’ faith in the integrity of their own government is the foundation of their support for that government. Without it, the government is on its own, separated from the people.”

Effective citizen engagement and education is critical to aligning – and maintaining alignment between – the nation’s workforce development approach and the will of the people whose job it is to serve. For that reason, more tribal governments are deploying innovative, culturally appropriate strategies to engage and educate their citizens. This ensures that they are learning what they need to learn from and about their people, as well as teaching their people what they need to know:

Learning: A tribal nation must go to great lengths to learn about its people (their needs, talents, and aspirations) if it is to provide compassionate, culturally relevant, and person-centered workforce development services. Front-line workforce development staff committed to going above and beyond can play a key role in this regard, but the nation also must design structural mechanisms to ensure its workforce development efforts are informed by the people so those efforts can meet the people where they are. Such mechanisms also need to provide citizens the ability to share their thoughts about how those efforts are progressing and ideas for how they could do better.

Teaching: Structured citizen engagement/education also enables the nation to keep its citizens informed about available workforce development services, job openings in tribal government and businesses, and the education and skills it most wants to cultivate among them. It also provides the ability to share back with the people how the nation has incorporated what it learned from and about them into the design and refinement of its workforce development efforts. In the long run, effective citizen engagement mechanisms and strategies also enable a nation to gradually reframe citizens’ expectations away from a “poverty” mindset to a “prosperity” mindset by teaching them that they all have: (1) inherent potential that the nation is committed to developing, (2) a lot to contribute to the nation (knowledge, skills, experience, and ideas), and (3) an obligation to do so.

Assessment

Years ago, one tribal nation, unhappy with the lack of progress its citizens who relied on state-run Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) support were making, took over administration of the TANF program. Initiating its own assessment of its newly inherited TANF clients, it discovered that 40 percent of them had disabilities, and most of those had learning disabilities. The data also confirmed that these disabilities often factored into clients’ non-compliance with program requirements, which resulted in fines and, in turn, a spike in dire need applications by those clients. The nation now routes them into its Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation program for the specialized support they need to prepare for employment.

This example illustrates what tribal nations have long understood: assessment – what is being evaluated, how, how often, by whom, and for what ultimate purpose – matters. What results from it can make all the difference between an ill-informed and shortsighted approach to workforce development and a well-informed, strategically driven, and impactful one. A primary reason for the former has been that outsiders – primarily federal and state governments – have long sat in the driver’s seat when it comes to generating data about Native people and the progress made by those who access workforce education, training, and related services.

The inherent shortcomings of federal data sources – the decennial U.S. Census, the American Community Survey, and the various criteria the federal government uses to measure its definition of program “success” – are many and well-documented. According to tribal workforce development expert Norm DeWeaver, these sources are ill-equipped to gauge the true severity of the challenges facing tribal workforce development; nor do they properly account for those “invisible” tribal citizens who aren’t looking for work, what skills and education they may have, and what skills and education they need to gain to secure employment. As one workforce development practitioner explains, “Conditions affecting Indian workers in reservation markets can often be very different than those for non-Indians in urban areas, differences which are not recognized in standard labor market research efforts.” Because federal data doesn’t accurately capture Indian Country’s labor force realities, federal decision-makers struggle to devise effective solutions to address them.

For tribal nations to develop effective local workforce development approaches, they need to drive the data that informs them. Since they know their own communities and conditions best, they are best positioned to collect the data and assess what it means for them. Because it’s their people and futures at stake, they know the right questions to ask – questions that outsiders would not think to pose. As one report explains, leading in this way also enables tribal nations “to incorporate cultural, contextual, and political concerns in program evaluation,” and it enhances “self-determination over program activities.”

For more information about how tribal nations are crafting innovative, self-governed approaches to workforce development, please click here.

In part six of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: removing obstacles and targeted solutions.

This essay is the fifth in a series of eight op-eds exploring the keys to success in – and the key strategic considerations for – tribal workforce development. It is drawn from a new tribal workforce development toolkit (see pages 20-23) produced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The following three op-eds will each explore two other strategic considerations for tribal workforce development:

Op-ed #1: Tribal workforce development: Success starts with governance

Op-ed #2: Why strategic vision and integration matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #3: Why institutions and culture matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #4: Why leadership and funding matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #5: Why citizen engagement and assessment matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #6: Why removing obstacles and targeted solutions matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #7: Why closing the loop and advancement matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #8: Why partnerships and sustainability matter to developing a tribal workforce

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