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Lessons Learned

POFE is a young organization, still evolving, refining, and seeking to expand and document its impact. Here are some lessons learned.

Blend Your Vision

As it exists today, POFE mixes the visions of three policymakers: Representative Evans, Secretary Schenck, and Governor Rendell. Rather than continue to “go it alone" with pet projects – based on subject, mechanism, jurisdiction, or branch of government, for example – they decided to collaborate. The outcome is better for it.

To some financial education advocates, creating POFE at the same time as TFWF was a setback. To them, it didn't seem financial education was getting the attention it deserved. Worse, for that first year, many felt the task force was unfairly draining POFE's resources. Yet, it is exactly what was learned during that intensive first year of work with the task force that allowed the effective, three-prong operating approach to emerge. It is doubtful that the office, if created on its own, would have had the time and resources to so extensively talk with the wide array of senior-level experts and citizens from whom it gleaned the most valuable information.

To some legislators, creating the office by executive order meant giving the governor "credit” for a positive action they could have taken legislatively. Yet, the executive order allowed for the office to be created instantly and to begin work immediately.

Don 4 Confuse Leadership with Stewardship

Many organizations and people work for years to achieve the high-profile public policy "win.” Yet, after the press coverage and celebratory event, policy wins are often just words on paper – even more often, they are unfunded words on paper. Real social change does not take place until the words come to life.

Bringing the words to life takes extraordinary, often unexciting, day-to-day effort. It takes attention paid to issues such as planning and budgeting and staffing and office space and procurement. The fist is endless. In addition to working with TFWF during the office's first year, for example, the director also had to work through state government human resources and labor relations processes to create and approve new job descriptions and salary ranges in the state system – a time- consuming process.

Policy proposals most effective at achieving social change are those constructed with sustainable staffing and funding.

Acknowledge That Innovation Takes Time

Because state government operates in the public trust and is the steward of public finances, it is right and appropriate that state programs produce tangible results to report to their citizenry. Innovation, however, takes time to produce tangible results.

A key aspect of its success is that POFE is funded by the Department of Banking. The department is not supported by the commonwealth's general revenue fund but by the assessments, fees, and fines of its regulated community. The office was therefore able to build its foundation without being interrupted (and potentially threatened) by the legislative appropriations. Secretary Schenck included funding for the POFE within the Banking Department's overall budget each year. In this context, it is reviewed, scrutinized, and – ultimately – approved by the legislature. Clearly, both the administration and the legislature are interested in results. However, this scenario provides policymakers with greater comfort in giving POFE the time it needed to get up and running.

The Messenger Matters

Some people believe that financial education is only needed by school students or low-income people. Pennsylvania policymakers disagree. There are scores of times in a person's life when his or her course can be changed by good or bad financial decisions – starting a family, buying a house, and participating in workplace benefits are just a few. No matter how much money we make or how old we are, we all have something to learn about money.

Some financial education programs are tied to state welfare or workforce development efforts. Others are tied closely with departments of education. POPE found that fewer people prejudge its work and a wider number of doors open because it is housed with the state's top financial regulator. For the most part, with regard to financial education, the Department of Banking is regarded as an honest broker of information without its own agenda. School districts feel they can be more open with information and concerns because the office is not the entity that controls their funding. Employers take meetings because they don't have a hidden fear that the conversation will turn to wages and other benefits. Community-based organizations welcome the opportunity to connect with the financial sector.

Don 4 Go Retail

There are national players that have produced high-quality, effective, and often free curricula. A myriad of statewide and local organizations deliver quality programs. Duplicating their efforts would be a poor use of precious resources. Helping those parties provide the highest quality product possible, however, is worthwhile and sustainable. It is a mistake for a state agency to get in the business of providing long-term financial education as a direct service.

Cultivate Partners

The path to success is much more easily negotiated with engaged allies than with disinterested spectators or competing rivals. Do not proceed without external validation. TFWF provided a process by which interested parties were able to contribute their ideas, hopes, and concerns. POFE has continued to cultivate partners in state and local agencies and networks by emphasizing coordination and communication. The office actively seeks to act as matchmaker, connecting funding partners – public sector and private sector, for-profit and nonprofit – with worthy projects. The office also strives to support the efforts of other agencies that seek to provide financial education information to large numbers of people by publicizing their efforts, speaking at their public events, and serving as an advisor on their projects.

Prioritize

From the day it opened its doors, POFE has been presented with more ideas and been offered more potential work than any hundred people could achieve. Once the office's organizational and operating principles emerged, it became easier to say no to projects that would require an intensive effort and only bear limited fruit. It is essential to keep an eye on the ball of meeting the needs of the community that the office's mission dictates. The strength of the office from the start has been working to help local and statewide organizations and their networks provide services more effectively, not attempting to supplant their role.

POKE has also been asked to speak about or help other groups replicate its approach across the country. It is worthwhile to support similar efforts in other jurisdictions to create a community of allies who can help trumpet the need for financial education efforts. Representatives of the office have done so and will continue to do so. While a balance must be struck that prioritizes efforts to build a successful financial education community at home, the effort to cultivate an audience both at home and across the country is beneficial.

You Don't Have to Be a Benefactor

POPE, as part of the Department of Banking, is not a grant-making office. While in other places, some projects draw authority by distributing funds in their community, the experience of this office shows that grant-making is not always necessary to create respect and authority. With no grant money, approaches to the office by existing and potential partners are couched in a different light. While funding is important, discussions with this office far more often address finding ways to deliver financial education more broadly or effectively than they address finding funding. Furthermore, the absence of the grant-making role again solidifies the office's place as an honest broker, able to work to expand and improve the field, with limited concern that actions will be misread as operating in the interest of itself or existing funding partners.

Closing

In a time where there are many threats to the financial security of American households, an effort to help consumers gain the knowledge necessary to protect their financial interests seems to be a worthwhile use of government resources. A member of a financially healthy household learns better and works better; he or she will contribute to the overall financial strength of a community rather than drain its resources. Pennsylvania has sought to address the need by coordinating and enhancing efforts already being made by members of its community to better the economic lives of its citizens, moving them from a vulnerable state in which they cannot see the options and opportunities in front of them to a more secure place in which they have the tools to make sound decisions to protect the livelihoods of households across the state. The hope is that more jurisdictions will see a financially educated citizenry as a priority too, adapt the lessons learned in earlier efforts, and provide innovation from which we all may benefit.

 
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