Lessons from the Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth

A federal pilot program aimed to improve coordination among education, workforce, and human services systems that serve opportunity youth. Did it succeed?
Blog Post
A group of five teenagers walk down the sidewalk next to a red brick building.
Elliot Reyna via Unsplash
May 15, 2024


Every year, millions of young people in this country celebrate major life milestones that mark their passage into adulthood. They graduate high school, enroll in community or four-year colleges, begin apprenticeships, or get hired for their first full-time jobs. But every year, while peers pursue post-secondary education and launch their careers, some fraction of young people find themselves neither in school nor working, isolated from the opportunities and systems that are best positioned to lead to economic stability and mobility. Recent estimates suggest around 5 million young people ages 14–24 fall into this category annually.

Ensuring these young people — called “opportunity youth” or “disconnected youth”[1] — transition successfully into adulthood has long been a focus of federal youth-oriented policy. It’s a worthy policy objective, and a complex one to execute: Successful transitions require more than signing a young person up for GED classes or a job training program, though those can be important pieces of the puzzle. In addition to education and career services, disconnected youth also often need mental health or substance abuse care, housing services, childcare support, food assistance, transportation to school and work commitments, and other wraparound supports.

Complications emerge not (only) from the variety of services involved in creating successful transitions for youth, but also in how siloed their delivery can be. These services are divided among providers across the education, workforce, and human services systems. For example, a young person might receive job training at a local American Job Center, take free GED prep classes at the neighborhood library, attend mental health counseling at a community health clinic, and get help transitioning out of foster care through an independent living program. In other words, youth often need to connect with more than one provider to access crucial supports and resources — a big ask for young people already facing significant barriers to education and employment — and providers, without shared data systems, don’t have access to the full picture of their clients’ case management situation.

The federal government’s funding structure reinforces this complication. Federal funding for disconnected youth is dispersed across different federal agencies and sub-agencies who then allocate it to providers across the education, workforce, and human services systems. As described in the introduction to this series, the accountability, reporting, and eligibility requirements tied to this money vary across departments, and can even vary among funding streams administered by the same department.

Within an organization, this can make it difficult to combine different pots of federal money to support a single program, though many providers do so through a process called “braiding” and, less frequently, through a related but distinct practice called “blending.” Braiding can quickly become a complex endeavor as each funding source retains its individual accountability, reporting, and eligibility requirements, meaning organizations must carefully track each dollar to ensure compliance with each stream’s rules. Blending, on the other hand, only mandates compliance with one set of requirements — in theory making it the more flexible, and appealing, option — but blending public dollars usually requires statutory permission or consent from the administering agency, so it occurs much less frequently. Though individual providers may rely on braiding and blending within their organization, they rarely pool sources across organizations. Doing so requires complex transfer and invoicing processes that are administratively burdensome, or the use of fiscal sponsors to pool funds, which can be costly. These administrative and bureaucratic headaches often deter providers from pursuing substantive collaboration across systems.

Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3)

Federal leaders recognized that lifting some of these bureaucratic requirements could enhance coordination among service providers and potentially improve youth outcomes. Beginning in 2011, the White House and federal agencies had been exploring options for easing those barriers and thought that disconnected youth programs might benefit from a performance partnership initiative, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has successfully used for decades to consolidate funding and reduce burdens. And in 2014, they put that theory into action when Congress authorized a new pilot program, Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3), based on the EPA model.

P3 allowed federal agencies to “waive statutory, regulatory, or administrative requirements” associated with their discretionary funding programs. The state, local, and tribal governments who ultimately receive those federal dollars would then be able to use that funding more flexibly to, the government hoped, “overcome some of the significant hurdles they may face in improving outcomes for disconnected youth.”

For place-based partnerships selected through a competitive process, P3 offered two main flexibilities:

  • First, P3 would allow selected sites to braid and blend different federal funding streams. Initially, discretionary funding from the US Department of Education (ED), the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the US Department of Labor (DOL), the Corporation for National and Community Services, and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences was eligible. Later, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) joined as well.
  • Second, selected sites would be able to request waivers from funding sources’ programmatic requirements. Waivers could provide programs with flexibility around allowable activities, eligible participants, and reporting requirements, as long as the granting agency agreed that the site’s proposed changes would still align with the program’s original statutory intent.

To date, the federal government has awarded 14 P3 pilots: nine in Cohort 1 (2014) and five in Cohorts 2 (2015) and 3 (2016). Each pilot consisted of a lead organization — usually a state, municipal, or tribal government agency — and several partner organizations from across education, workforce and human services systems.

Armed with the P3 flexibilities, pilot sites took different approaches. Some focused on improving service delivery for specific subsets of their disconnected youth population, like young people who were also pregnant and parenting or young people who were still in school but at risk of dropping out. Case management was a major component of most pilots’ approaches, and all included an effort to enhance existing programs or create new ones.

Lessons Learned from P3 Implementation

To study the results of the P3 pilots, the federal agencies contracted with the evaluation firm Mathematica, and a research team spent five-years evaluating P3 implementation, producing a set of comprehensive reports. Drawing on these findings, we highlight here three key lessons learned from the implementation of P3 across the 14 pilot sites.

Braided funding was popular among P3 sites, but they were largely unable to capitalize on the blending funding flexibilities. Braiding was nearly ubiquitous across the pilots, with 12 of the 14 sites braiding federal funds to support their P3 work. But only two sites ultimately blended two or more funding streams. The relative lack of blending indicated that sites were either unable to or not interested in capitalizing on one of P3’s greatest flexibilities. While braiding requires each funding stream to be tracked and reported on separately, blending eases those administrative burdens by putting all funding sources into one “pot” with only one set of reporting requirements. In theory, this freedom would allow youth-serving organizations to build deeper collaborations across partners and systems.

The reality on the ground, however, proved more complicated. Many pilots simply weren’t familiar with blending as a practice. Some P3 partners didn’t know the difference between braiding and blending, and were unsure of how to execute a strategy for blended funding — so they never even created one.

Blending also represented a stark deviation from the usual strict reporting practices associated with federal grants that P3 partners feared it may cause them to fall out of compliance. (Typically, blending federal funds requires statutory approval.) Despite the technical assistance federal agencies provided to pilot partners intended to clarify the P3 flexibilities, leaders at some sites still thought that blending was too good to be true: they didn’t believe they could actually forgo original reporting and eligibility requirements to blend funds under P3 without facing a punishment from the granting federal agency. Mathematica evaluators suggested that future initiatives might be able to address those concerns by providing sites not only with more robust technical assistance regarding the potential approaches to blending funding (e.g. more help identifying opportunities to seek waivers), but also the opportunity to connect directly with their federal partners “to increase awareness of and buy-in to the model.”

Sites primarily used waivers to ease WIOA Youth restrictions. Though pilots were allowed to request waivers for any of the discretionary federal funding streams from participating agencies, more than half concentrated on just one: WIOA Title I Youth funding. Of the 34 waivers issued, 18 were for WIOA Title I Youth, requested by 10 different sites. (By way of comparison, the next most popular waiver was for ED’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers, with just six issued for two pilot sites.) Pilots used them to expand participant eligibility; create more flexibility in where, when, and how they served WIOA-eligible youth; and reduce administrative burden.

The popularity of the WIOA waivers can be, in part, attributed to the fact that 11 of 14 pilots received WIOA Youth funding and it was therefore waiver-eligible at most sites. Partners likely came to P3 well-versed in the WIOA requirements and with opinions about what adjustments would make service delivery easier. But the WIOA waivers also point to the challenges presented by the program’s intensive requirements — and the barriers it can create for providers trying to serve disconnected youth more cohesively across systems. Leaders of future efforts or similar initiatives in this space should be prepared to help on-the-ground sites navigate and strategize around programmatic flexibilities for WIOA Youth.

Securing systems change likely requires dedicated planning time and specialized guidance on flexibilities that support systems change, not just programmatic innovations. Sustained systems change — i.e., lasting changes to how pilot partners collaborated on “governance structures, communication practices, and data-sharing approaches” — proved elusive for most P3 pilots. Mathematica found that only two sites were able to create systems change that outlasted the pilot timeframe. Those sites had specifically selected systems change as a primary goal and, before they even applied to P3, had identified the specific areas to target in systems change work. They also had buy-in from personnel. Leaders at partner organizations were supportive of the mission, and staff were willing to innovate and work together to address administrative obstacles.

Without these conditions already in place, the other 12 pilots struggled to create lasting systems change armed with the P3 flexibilities alone, though some were able to take initial steps. Mathematica evaluators found that P3 would need to develop a greater focus on systems change to ensure sites were able to capitalize on the flexibilities to make sustainable progress in that area. Their recommendations for doing so included:

  • Building in planning time for sites to understand and assess opportunities for systems change in their areas before implementing their P3 approach.
  • Offering specialized coaching and guidance on what flexibilities are available and, even more crucially, which to use to support systems change they plan to tackle with their approach.
  • Providing technical assistance focused on building awareness and buy-in of flexibilities among partner organizations to combat the lack of familiarity and distrust that hampered sites’ use of blended funds.
  • Creating new performance measures that assess sites’ system change progress (not just youth outcomes) and therefore incentivize a focus on systems change work.


While P3 didn’t lead to transformative change overnight, it still produced some encouraging results. Mathematica found moderate evidence of improved youth outcomes at nine pilot sites, and youth generally (though not universally) reported positive experiences with the services they received. Nine sites were able to effectively braid and blend their funding to create a common set of programs for P3 youth. Partner organizations across the pilots regularly reported they had been able to establish brand new relationships with other service providers and strengthen their existing relationships with others through P3. More importantly, perhaps, policymakers gleaned valuable insights about how to best structure programs geared towards systems change, rather than just programmatic innovation — findings that can help inform effective federal pathways policy in the future.

Up next in this series is a deeper dive on blended funding in action. Though blended funding didn’t receive major uptake in P3, it is the defining feature of another federal program: Public Law 102-477, also called the “Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act.” In our next installment, my colleague Morgan Polk will take a closer look at how federally recognized tribes and Alaskan Native entities blend employment and training-related federal funds to improve service delivery and strengthen the economic well-being of their communities.

This blog is the second in a five-part series from New America authors exploring how federal funding can support efforts to better align our systems of education and work in support of career pathways for young people. This project is one of several publications from organizations that were convened by Bellwether to discuss challenges and opportunities in federal pathways policy in 2023 and 2024. You can read publications from other participating organizations here.


[1] The legislation authorizing the program discussed in this piece, Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth, defined disconnected youth as “individuals between the ages of 14 and 24 (who are low-income and either homeless, in foster care, involved in the juvenile justice system, unemployed, or not enrolled in or at risk of dropping out of an educational institution).”