Imagine you’re a high school student in New Orleans who has landed an internship at a department of the city government. But before you can begin work, you must complete or submit a variety of paperwork: birth certificate, social security number, a state-issued identification, proof of residency, legal guardianship papers and banking information.
It’s an overwhelming task for any 17-year-old, but many youth who participate in YouthForce NOLA’s internship program face issues that make it feel impossible. They didn’t reside with a legal guardian, for example, lived in transitional housing or had lost documents they were unsure how to recover.
“This has always been an issue,” notes Paige Boetefuer, director of internships for YouthForce NOLA, an organization that launched in 2015 to address the issue that too few young people were being prepared for the influx of high-wage, high-demand jobs expected for New Orleans. When Sarah Leverett came on as program manager in 2019, she spent the bulk of her time handling paperwork, which in turn delayed youth’s orientation, training and internship start.
When YouthForce NOLA worked with the city of New Orleans later that year to pilot a new internship with city staff, as part of the What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative, they honed in on improving the process for both youth and staff. Using insight from consulting firm The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the team streamlined enrollment to speed up the time youth could begin working, provide resources and alternatives so they’d feel less anxious, and free up staff to support them in other ways.
In 2019, there were about 40 kids on YouthForce NOLA’s social work caseload there because of paperwork issues, according to Boetefuer. “Last year,” she notes, “We expected that to be an issue expanded by COVID, but we only had three students on our caseload to start.”
Retention also saw a dramatic uptick. Between 2017 and 2020, the youth accepted into the program who stayed on for the internship ranged between 63 and 76 percent. In the spring of this year, retention hit 96.7 percent.
Prior to the change, youth faced a variety of paperwork challenges: some had complicated family lives and weren’t living with their legal guardian; others lost documents in fires or floods, including Hurricane Katrina. For unstably housed youth, it was a challenge to prove proof of residency. “Overwhelmingly we did not have all the paperwork on day one,” Leverett says, which ate up staff time and put youth in a stressful limbo right before their internship.
YouthForce NOLA brainstormed with BIT and the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability to determine first steps. “It was about mapping out the processes and requirements that allowed us to break it down and tackle the pieces that we could,” says Melissa Schigoda, director of the Office of Performance and Accountability. “For the pieces that we couldn’t, we tried to minimize the amount of time or make it as easy as possible for people.”
BIT wanted to understand where youth tended to drop off in the process. “We were putting that to paper and asking if certain requirements were really necessary and noting when the team wasn’t sure,” says Micah Melia, advisor for BIT North America. For example, proof of residency was one of the hardest requirements, as the process required them to provide a copy of their lease or utility bill with their parent or guardian’s name or a driver’s license with their address on it. The parent or guardian’s name on the lease or utility bill also needed to be on the child’s birth certificate.
Decisions were made in consultation with a variety of city stakeholders, given that city and federal funding could be used to support the YouthForce NOLA partnership and other workforce development programs. It included reps from the city’s human resources, its workforce development team, the finance and budget departments, according to Schigoda. “We hashed out which things we need to be sticklers about and what we have more leeway on,” she says.
Young people still had to prove they’re a resident of New Orleans, they determined, but an alternative greatly simplified the old method. “We brought public schools in, where YouthForce already has strong connections, and created a way that schools could directly certify that their students live in New Orleans,” says Melia.
YouthForce NOLA had previously required students to show a birth certificate under the erroneous assumption that a birth certificate listing the youth’s parents would prove guardianship. The team came up with multiple alternatives, including a guardian signing a Non-Legal Custodian Affidavit, an affidavit signed by the person who has non-legal custody of a child while having physical custody.
A detailed resource guide was developed to help youth track down documents, including ways they could receive a new birth certificate or social security card. “We cleaned up all our communication templates,” Leverett says. “We outlined exactly what youth will need, all on one checklist, with follow up resources. If they can’t find their ID or their birth certificate, it tells them the next steps.”
BIT also developed a staff-facing checklist and flowchart to help the entire YouthForce NOLA staff address enrollment questions. “The idea is that we all have a checklist in front of us to look at the issue, check the chart, and quickly offer a solution,” Boetefuer says. “The biggest problem before was that Sarah [Leverett] knew all the information, but other people didn’t.”
Some processes couldn’t be simplified — students still have to set up a bank account and direct deposit, in order to get paid — so YouthForce NOLA made sure its resources and instructions were as clear and straightforward as possible.
The first round of improvements were piloted with YouthForce’s smaller spring internship in 2020. Then another round of improvements — based on lessons learned from the spring cohort and the need to make the process fully virtual in light of COVID-19 — were implemented in summer 2020. “The materials and messaging to students were refined again after gathering feedback from youth, families, and staff, and we switched to fully digital/virtual submissions for summer ‘20,” says Boetefuer.
“We set a goal last summer to hit 95 percent of completed [enrollment] folders by day one of training — we not only met that, we exceeded that,” Leverett says. “That’s compared to [staff] spending the first two weeks of training in summer 2019 processing paperwork, as opposed to having almost everything done by day one.”
Leverett and Boetefuer also spoke to the emotional impact on young people. “If they realized they didn’t have a birth certificate, they didn’t initially spiral into anxiety, they were presented with other options of what to do,” Boetefuer says. She adds that digitizing the process allowed youth “to do it at their own pace — they upload things as they find them, and they have a month to do it.”
For Leverett, the impact is in retention. “In the past, I assume that a very good chunk of students didn’t try to show up when they saw all that paperwork,” she says. “Now, everything is much more clear and we’re way less likely to lose students after they’re accepted.”
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series about how cities can use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.