Health & Human Services

Investing in Families Using Data

The smartest investment a state can make is in its children and families. The best way to do that is through results-based government.
by | January 11, 2011
 

It's always hugely refreshing to run into a state legislator who gets the importance of data and performance measurement when it comes to policy and budgeting. This is not a common area of fluency for elected legislators -- federal, state or local. In speeches I give on results-based government, the one surefire laugh line I always use is: "You can lead a legislator to data, but you can't make him think." This is all too painfully and universally true, although I think it's slowly changing.

In fact, during Governing's Public Officials of the Year awards last November, the magazine honored three state legislators who used data to drive policy and budgeting. Two of those awardees -- Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden and Texas state Sen. John Whitmire -- were recognized for rejecting criminal justice policy as usual, and instead sponsoring and helping pass a bill that spent $241 million on treatment, mental health and rehabilitation. The two lawmakers had looked at the data and realized that most offenders have mental health and substance abuse problems, problems that aren't effectively addressed by simply locking people up.

While the Maddens and Whitmires of the world generally continue to be the exception to the rule, Kathy Ryg, a former Illinois state representative, gets data too. She just stepped down from her post to take over as president of Voices for Illinois Children, the state's preeminent advocacy group for children and families.

As a member of the Legislature in one of the most fiscally challenged states in the country, Ryg was keenly aware of how important it was to invest state dollars as wisely as possible. That's why, as state representative, she was a passionate advocate for supporting proven programs aimed at early childhood education.

But the problem with such legislation, she says, is that once it's passed, "everyone thinks you're done." The needed focus and prioritization on implementing that very sensible and cost-effective legislation loses its momentum. The world has a tendency to slide back to business as usual. Instead of focusing on giving kids an educational leg up from birth to age 5, legislators scrabble to bring home the bacon and agency staff run from brush fire to brush fire.

One of the last pieces of legislation Ryg worked on before her departure created the After School and Youth Development Project, which establishes a statewide Youth Development Council to monitor and support after-school and youth development programs. Knowing that the state didn't have any money to put behind the effort, the legislation authorizes public-private partnerships so that public officials can pursue private dollars in support of the effort, which will, at its heart, pursue a performance agenda. In other words, it will seek out and identify programs that clearly work.

The remaining hurdle, however, is still legislators, who too often grab earmarks and toss them at whatever home-grown program happens to be in political favor, irrespective of its outcomes. This was as true, Ryg says, for child welfare as it was for any other legislative project. Her most fundamental pursuit as a member of the Illinois General Assembly was to get legislators focused on outcomes.

Why is this all so important? As long-time Brookings Institution poverty expert Ron Haskins has illustrated time and again with data, the most effective anti-poverty measure on the planet is a good education. According to a factsheet by Voices for Illinois Children, 96 percent of downstate children who participated in pre-K, and 78 percent of upstate pre-K participants, graduated from high school. According to Haskins' figures, those who make it out of high school experience significantly improved chances of making it into America's economically and socially healthy middle class. So, proven programs that support kids and learning continue to be among the smartest investments any state can make.

Why is this all so important right now? A new crop of legislators is sweeping into state capitals across the country this month, and a huge number of them are going to be faced with the stark reality that their states are broke. If those new legislators really want to improve the long-term social and economic prospects of their states, they need to set aside pet projects and pet policies and focus on effective government over the long run -- and effective government over the long run is government that supports kids and families. "We're moving full-steam ahead on this," says Ryg, as she discusses her new role with advocacy partners. "We really have to focus on educating the newly elected as to why this is so important."

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