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Where’s the Data? What the Government <i>Isn't</i> Tracking

The amount of missing and unusable public-sector data is stunning.

Data has become a cornerstone of state and local government management. Legislatures, city councils and their executive branches dwell in thickets of numbers, ostensibly gathered to help those in charge make wiser, less politicized decisions. That’s why it’s counterintuitive and unfortunate that huge swaths of extremely useful data are missing in action. As Massachusetts Auditor Suzanne Bump told us, “If you don’t have complete information, then the idea of achieving performance goals is thwarted.”

Over the years, we’ve found ourselves poking around the internet trying in vain to find specific data on such pertinent topics as drug use and the success and/or failure rate of outsourced and privatized projects. Information about the costs of programs is in particularly short supply. As John Turcotte, state legislative program evaluation director in North Carolina, points out, “If you want to assess whether a program is needed or not, you have to know how much it costs.” But many states, counties and cities don’t calculate and disclose those numbers.

The absence of good information about recidivism among former prison inmates is another example of missing useful data. For law enforcement and corrections departments, recidivism rates are one of the best measures of the success or failure of their programs. And yet, says Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan policy and research organization, “I don’t think there is a jurisdiction in the country of any size that has even a quarter of the recidivism data that they want and need.”

Take King County, Wash., the 13th biggest county in the country. The county has a bunch of independent systems and departments that look at recidivism. But, says Marcus Stubblefield, criminal justice strategy and policy section manager in the Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget, “there’s no standard definition of recidivism among them. And the systems don’t even talk to one another.”

The county is aware that the absence of consistent, accurate recidivism data is important for managing its corrections system, and it is embarking on an effort to standardize this data.

Another kind of data that is frequently not created in many state and local governments is that which disaggregates information according to race. “Race is so important in our country that we need to have the breakdowns available so we can better come up with solutions,” says Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This is a particularly tricky data set to derive as there’s an understandable sensitivity that misuse of data broken down by race could lead to false conclusions. But without it, solutions to social problems that primarily effect minorities in America can be harder to uncover.

Then there’s the missing data on the dollar amount that states have deferred in infrastructure maintenance. A recent report by the Volcker Alliance revealed that only four states have come up with statewide numbers for the amount of deferred maintenance they have accumulated. (Disclosure: We helped research and write that report.) “Infrastructure is the lifeblood of a state economy,” says William Glasgall, director of state and local initiatives at the Volcker Alliance. “There’s a cost of bringing highways, bridges, school buildings and sewage plants up to a state of good repair.” If you don’t know what it’s going to cost, he says, then it’s difficult to attack the problem.

Sometimes, the data does exist but is not accessible, which means it won’t be seen or used by policymakers who could rely on it. According to Bump, Massachusetts’ regional transportation authorities generally gather information about maintenance of assets. But for the most part, this data appears only on paper, not in digital form. One authority doesn’t even go that far. It keeps those records on chalkboards. “So, though our regional transportation authorities may have data,” Bump says, “it’s not in a form that can actually be used.” 

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