How data-driven policies can help states and localities

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Officials say that following the numbers and looking at evidence has proven useful in tackling a range of equity issues and with steering clear of partisan fights.

State and local officials on Wednesday emphasized the importance of governments basing decisions on data, saying it has helped localities address inequities and avoid pitfalls with the nation’s sharp political divisions.

“It is in my experience, the single greatest tool that we have at our disposal to get away from what I think is the greatest threat to our country right now, which is the increased partisan polarization that we see,” said G.T. Bynum, the mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bynum was among the speakers at an event in Washington, D.C., held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Results for America, a nonprofit that works with states and local governments to factor evidence and data into policy making.

The Tulsa mayor, a Republican, said that the most important thing data can be used for is to, “take large problems and move them out of the realm of a philosophical debate and turn them into practical problem solving.”

“When you can bring data to the table and give people a common set of facts to work from and start having those discussions. It makes all the difference,” he added.

Based on data highlighting inequities, Bynum and other officials said local governments like Tulsa and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin have been addressing issues around race and other disparities—a top priority for the nonprofit.

Bynum, for instance, said that by looking at his city’s data, Tulsa officials discovered “that we had way too many warrants for arrest for people simply because they had not paid municipal fines” or showed up for court dates. Working with Results for America, and using American Rescue Plan Act funds, the city started a pilot project to reduce the number of people who were not showing up. 

“It just seems so simple in retrospect,” he said. “What if we just send a text message to people reminding them of their court date. A text message would cost next to nothing? It definitely costs less than incarcerating somebody.”

Tulsa is the site of a 1921 race massacre in which a white mob burned down Black-owned businesses and homes and murdered dozens if not hundreds of people. 

The city has taken a number of steps around racial equity issues under Bynum, a moderate who said he was initially interested in Results for America’s work because he was looking for ways to cut wasteful spending.

He also said that, on the day he decided to run for mayor in 2016, he read an article about how children brought up in a predominantly Black section of the city have shorter life expectancies compared to children from other parts of Tulsa. 

“That resonated with me as a dad more than anything else,” he said.

Tulsa has partnered with the City University of New York system to track disparities based on several factors, including race, age, gender and veteran status, he said. 

The influx of the federal Covid-19 funds, he said, is “a once in a generation opportunity to do a lot of that work.”

Similarly, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said examining data—particularly on the disparities that have been apparent during the pandemic—has strengthened the county’s resolve to deal with inequities. His predecessor, Chris Abele, signed a resolution in 2019 declaring racism a public health crisis.

“When we looked at the data, particularly around Covid-19, it was disproportionately affecting our communities of color. And so we doubled down on that declaration,” Crowley said. 

“We haven't really met the needs of many of the most vulnerable people in our community. So we keep racial equity at the center of every decision,” he added. 

Crowley noted that for the past two years when constructing budgets, the county has had a “a racial equity budget” that all departments must use.

Examining data, he said, has also been important in justifying the county’s $2 million a year initiative combatting homelessness. Since launching the effort in 2015, the number of unsheltered homeless people in the county has dropped by 70%, to the point where a count last year found only 17 still on the streets.

In April, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized the county as having the lowest number of unsheltered homeless per capita of any community in the nation.

By tracking the data, Crowley said the county has been able to show the cost of the effort has been offset by savings, including on costs for mental health care and around $600,000 in legal expenses. In addition, the county’s website said declines in homelessness have reduced annual Medicaid costs to the state by $2.1 million a year.

“It's extremely important that we continue to tell the story about why housing matters,” Crowley said.

With a flood of federal infrastructure dollars headed its way, Tennessee is also keying in on the importance of using data in making decisions, said Christin Lotz, director of the state’s two-year-old Office of Evidence and Impact.

The state, she said, is using ARPA dollars to create a data hub to share information. The hub will allow the state to carry out data analytics on a scale that hasn’t been possible in the past, she explained.

“We are more focused in Tennessee than ever before, on following the numbers and following the evidence,” she said.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: The data states need to improve digital equity

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