Data Key to Solving Social Challenges

By Jeff Edmondson, Cincinnati Enquirer 

July 14, 2013

We have historically taken a “spray and pray” approach to addressing complex social challenges. We have numerous and disparate leaders across sectors in any given area – whether its health care or education – working to get better results and none of them have the data they need to build on what works together.

This is not a surprise. Bestselling author and organizational expert Jim Collins writes in “Good to Great” and subsequent pieces that using data effectively and consistently over time is the key to sustained success, but getting access to necessary data in the social sector is extremely difficult. Fortunately, a recent executive order by President Obama sets a new standard for how government releases data, making this problem much easier to overcome.

Despite generous philanthropic support for nonprofits in the social sector, government remains the largest funder of efforts to improve quality of education, alleviate poverty and increase job and career readiness. As such, there is tremendous power in the data government can provide on what works, and what doesn’t. President Obama’s executive order creating an “Open Data Policy” will require data to be freely available and, perhaps more importantly, machine readable – making data that was once either unavailable or effectively not useable, accessible to entrepreneurs and researchers. This means nonprofits, social services, funders, and researchers, among others, will have powerful new resources at their disposal to help them achieve better outcomes.

Here in Cincinnati, The Strive Partnership is improving outcomes across the cradle-to-career learning continuum, in part, by using data to identify, lift up, and expand what works for kids in our own backyard. Partners have worked individually and collectively to improve kindergarten readiness by 11 percent between 2006 and the 2012-2013 school year. Fourth-grade reading achievement is up 16 percent over the same period. Here, nonprofit leaders, educators, district superintendents, businesses, college and university presidents, civic leaders and funders are all working together to share results to collectively improve outcomes.

Building on this success, a national movement has emerged around building “civic infrastructure” that is focused on enabling communities to use data effectively to address social issues. Over 90 communities have joined the Strive Cradle to Career Network to help figure out this challenging work. And through open data, and with this executive order, all these communities can work more effectively with the government to get results like we are seeing in Cincinnati.

The bottom line: If data is used properly by leaders who collectively respect and actively protect privacy, communities are more likely to see big changes in outcomes because cross-sector partners can work together to make better decisions about how to invest their limited resources.

To truly move the needle on our nation’s toughest social problems requires commitment from the ground up – from the in-the-field practitioner to management and funders alike to use and share data. Practitioners are on the frontlines of data collection, but all too often, in great part because of constrained resources, they are singularly focused on the delivery of services rather than the mechanics of collecting data effectively.

We must empower practitioners by getting them the data they need to evaluate their own success. This doesn’t mean hiring expert analysts for every service provider. Instead, by forming “backbone institutions” in every community around major social issues, a central “Director of Continuous Improvement” can work across practitioners to provide and analyze the data required to make better decisions every day.

Once practitioners have access to the data, public and private investors must incent them to use it by encouraging providers to work together and align existing and new resources to scale what works. These investors can also encourage the open sharing of what practitioners are learning – the good, bad, and ugly – in order to improve services and, eventually, outcomes.

The potential from data couldn’t come at a better time. With greater demand for services and fewer resources available, it is more important than ever that partners across sectors ensure our time, talent, and treasure is focused on getting the best possible results.

The expanded access to data the executive order allows will help them identify what is working so they can align limited resources behind what works. It works in Cincinnati, and the members of the Cradle to Career Network are showing it can work elsewhere too. By making more informed decisions with data, we can all go from good to great, achieving better outcomes for children and families.

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