Data and technology are enabling citizen-driven methods to hold government accountable and press for justice and systemic reform. For its part, government must use these same tools to fulfill its responsibility for the safety and well-being of citizens. All too often, government has merely applied such tools to build systems of documentation, compliance, and enforcement, while missing larger opportunities to be more responsive, more efficient, and produce better outcomes.
The horrific details of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody were widely shared on social media and sparked weeks-long civil protests that ultimately led to the indictment of six Baltimore police officers. Equally disturbing details have emerged through traditional reporting on Gray’s life in West Baltimore. For example, before the age of one, he was poisoned from lead in his home, a toxin known to impair cognitive development and impede learning, behavior, and health. Such test results should have triggered integrated interventions from public health programs, schools, housing agencies, and government officials. Instead, they become the basis for a lawsuit by Gray’s family 18 years later against their landlord.
Today we have the technical capabilities to change lives by using data effectively. What if we could target public resources and community programs to help families and individuals thrive? What if we could harness data and technology to transform government so that it is more citizen-centric and accountable? We can. We have the means to address our social problems and produce vastly different results. However, we need to change our mindset and our approach.
The current social system, largely government-funded, is compliance based, rather than outcomes focused. Government checks to see how many pens agencies bought, how many meetings they held, how many trips they took, and how much they spent on salaries. Rarely does government ask whether agencies improve lives. In cases like Freddie Gray, few asked questions like: How many children are we protecting from lead poisoning? How many homes are healthier for families and help them avoid long-term health challenges? How many residents are connected to economic opportunity? This requires a new way of thinking. It requires asking: What is the impact we are trying to achieve? It requires that we align incentives to pay for results, monitor data on a regular basis to understand variations, and examine evidence to understand what has and has not worked.
Data and technology are already ushering in a new era of citizen-centric government. Governments around the world are digitizing public services to deliver better results for citizens; developing new digital approaches to improve service delivery in the areas of health, economic development, safety, and justice; codifying best practices and sharing standards for others to adapt and learn; and laying the groundwork for more data-driven government practices.
Cities and counties are leveraging data in new ways to solve local problems and improve results for citizens. For example, in Chicago, a network of 500 sensor nodes called the Array of Things Project will collect and provide high-resolution environmental data to city planners, health officials, community organizers, businesses, and the general public. This data will then be publicly available for free through the City of Chicago Data Portal and other open data platforms, allowing policymakers and community members to work together to identify and address community needs.
At the same time, there is growing support for policy ideas centered around “what works.” Bipartisan policymakers in the US House and Senate and the White House are advancing policies with an increased focus on the use of evidence, and incentivizing and rewarding results. This environment has also given way to social impact financing via mechanisms—such as Pay for Success (PFS), Innovation Funds, and Place-Based Strategies—that leverage public-private partnerships, data, evidence, and community-level approaches to achieve outcomes. Data innovation is meeting finance innovation.
Yet, these are still small examples. We need to move the needle at scale. We need a smarter government that embraces modernization and focuses on impact—a government that rewards outcomes, makes the best use of every dollar, and improves lives. In our recent paper, we discuss how policymakers can accelerate efforts to leverage data and technology to transform government. But government cannot do it alone. To arrive at 21st-century solutions, effective cross-sector partnerships and the authentic engagement of communities will need to match and support government efforts. Data can be a pathway to that solution.
Why Data Matters
With fewer public resources and increasing public demand for services and solutions that work, we need to better target resources—and that requires data. Government, business, and philanthropy are actively seeking opportunities for investing in outcomes. The options are limited. We need to invest in a larger pipeline of community solutions backed by data and evidence. Both the private sector and philanthropy are interested in organizations collecting data and showing evidence of impact.
There are some great demonstrations of this progress. In Boston, for example, the nonprofit Roca, Inc. collects and analyzes data to identify the most successful interventions for at-risk youth. Roca uses these insights to collaborate with local providers to help youth avoid incarceration and escape poverty. The state of Massachusetts has embraced Roca using funds from the federal government’s Pay for Success (PFS) portfolio. Massachusetts and a private sector partner, Third Sector Capital Partners, are financing a five-year program by Roca known as the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Project to reduce incarceration among 924 “high-risk” young men by 45 percent. Massachusetts chose to partner with Roca for its approach—its ability to rigorously track data and demonstrate evidence of success.
Back in Baltimore, Green and Healthy Homes Initiative GHHI is expanding its partnering with cities to ensure safe and healthy homes for low-income residents. GHHI uses a data-driven approach to provide healthy homes for communities and advocate for increased efforts to prevent lead poisoning. They have also partnered with Johns Hopkins Hospital and Healthcare System to develop an asthma-related PFS project in the city. This intervention will pay for the removal of health hazards, such as lead, in homes and improve health outcomes for families. GHHI is now testing the feasibility of this place-based approach in five US locations.
A data-conscious approach plays a crucial role in how organizations respond to the communities they serve and how they pursue systemic solutions to achieve impact. By arming leaders with real-time information, and providing platforms for communities, government, and cross-sector partners to work together, these data-driven methods can help develop real solutions.
Government as Scale
Government should support proven solutions. The data that communities are collecting and analyzing are critical for policymakers. For governments focused on improving social outcomes, community data can provide a direct means to achieve and validate success. Making results on the ground visible through transparency can increase public trust in government and, as a result, can strengthen the relationship between communities and governments. This data can help policymakers identify needs sooner, like in the case of Freddie Gray.
To do this, government should develop a supporting infrastructure for data-driven community solutions, starting with these practical steps:
- Embrace an outcomes mindset. Focusing on social impact will create a demand for outcomes and identify what works in communities.
- Use data to make decisions. Data can help identify needs, opportunities, and solutions. Data can also give communities a voice. It enables transparency, and promotes greater trust and accountability.
- Invest in cross-sector partnerships. Public-private partnerships can provide critical support to community-led efforts. Governments are uniquely positioned to bring partners to the table to collaborate around common interests.
Public policy should help citizens like Freddie Gray and his family. Tax dollars should fund solutions and show results. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Cities and counties across the country are already implementing smarter policies that can produce meaningful outcomes for citizens. Communities are using data to improve local services and tackle difficult problems, and their success is attracting public and private support. Data can be a bridge for communities, government, and philanthropy to partner more effectively and produce 21st-century solutions that improve the lives of citizens and achieve maximum social impact.