Using Data and Evidence to Move the Needle on Social Problems

Rather than relying on aggressive policing and incarceration, these tools could help us find better ways help those left behind.
by | December 8, 2015

Patrick T. McCarthy

President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The stakes for effective government have never been higher, and confidence in government's ability to move the needle on complex social problems has never been lower. But the best thinkers and practitioners on the cutting edge of good government are using data and evidence relentlessly to understand these problems, target solutions, build in transparency and accountability, and feed continuous improvement.

There is a lot riding on getting government right. Too many are being left out and left behind, with grave consequences for individuals, families and communities. In a world of viral social media, the negative anecdote becomes the defining narrative, stoking cynicism about government's ability to make a positive difference. Yet from Baltimore to Ferguson to New York City to North Charleston to Minneapolis to Chicago -- and in a heartbreakingly growing list of other communities -- tragedy, fear and frustration have sparked events that force us to confront the disparities and failures of business as usual.

In Baltimore, the circumstances of Freddie Gray's death put policing practices in the spotlight and prompted important examination and discussion. The circumstances of his short 25-year life should cause us similarly to examine and address what that tragedy reveals about generations of systemic neglect, deliberate segregation and denial of basic opportunities.

Relentless use of evidence and data could have led down a very different path. Absent (or choosing to ignore) evidence and data, our society decided to rely on aggressive policing and mass incarceration as the response to problems that have their roots in residential segregation, disinvestment, economic changes and the failures of urban schools.

More widespread use of data and evidence tools would lead to more effective government and greater public confidence. Three of the sharpest of those tools are results-based accountability, integrated data systems, and increased accountability and transparency.

Results-based accountability would reveal, for instance, that juvenile prisons are, by any measure, failed institutions. Benchmarking would show that the United States incarcerates two to three times more young people than any other country. Cost-benefit data would show that these facilities are costly and achieve terrible results for young people, driving them even further off track rather than helping them build a more successful future, and that they compromise rather than increase public safety. Rigorous application of results-based accountability would yield just one answer: to close these factories of failure.

When he died, Freddie Gray was neither working nor in school, and his prospects for a successful future were dim. But that outcome would have come as no surprise to anyone with access and commitment to deriving decisions based on the right kinds of information. Integrated data systems allow us to track individuals and families over time and across multiple aspects of their lives and circumstances. Such a system would have linked Gray's early development to his mother's drug addiction. It would have tracked the chain of deplorable housing situations that raised his risk for early trauma even higher. It could have identified the risk of lead poisoning long before he was diagnosed with a debilitating level of lead in his bloodstream. And, as he missed milestone after milestone, the accumulation of red flags would have identified an urgent need to intervene.

The careful monitoring and integration of data systems can help us see, understand and respond more effectively to every aspect of the pathway to successful adulthood, including housing, economic, educational and law-enforcement decisions. If such a system had been tracking Freddie Gray and had triggered early and successful intervention, he might not have been hanging out, in harm's way, on a street corner in Baltimore last April.

In Baltimore and in city after city across the country, there are far too many young people with the same accumulation of disadvantage, far too many who face the same dim odds for finding a pathway to a productive adulthood. We know what to do, but the political will to invest in more effective strategies is scarce. The rigorous use of data and evidence -- and the transparency and public accountability that such data systems enable -- can help to replace public skepticism with confidence that tax dollars are well spent. It's a genuine opportunity to move the needle.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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