Fostering a Local Culture that Values Data

In my first essay I noted that data and data-driven decision-making are transforming government and politics and that we must involve the local community to ensure that it builds us up rather than damages us. I suggested three efforts in support of this.

This essay starts to tackle the first: to foster a local culture that values data in driving policy decisions and expects decision-makers to share that data and to engage with impacted communities around it.

I want to linger awhile on the word culture. It’s easy to rush past that one without a lot of thought: of course we should build a culture that supports the premise of the essay. Moving on …

But seriously, why do we need to build a local culture? Why not simply demand that local institutions become more data-driven and community-centered? They can draw from a large and growing body of knowledge about best practices in open data, outcomes-focused performance management and community engagement.

If you have local institutions that are capable of doing that, by all means go for it. But in most places, including where I live, our institutions really don’t have that capacity. It must be created.

Easy to say. Really, really hard to do. Not because some people will resist. They will, of course, but that’s not the main problem. The biggest obstacle is that becoming inclusively and equitably data-driven turns out to require more than a willingness to do something differently; it requires the willingness to do everything differently. We have to let go what we “know” in favor of what the data tells us, listen to people and truths that challenge us and make us deeply uncomfortable, act before we feel ready because the data is clear, or hold back when we’re raring to go because we don’t actually know enough.

In other words, becoming deeply and inclusively data-driven requires a major change in the culture of our local institutions. Culture is critical because it is the only way to coordinate the actions of a large number of people who operate mostly independently. The alternative, trying to police everyone’s behavior, is extremely expensive and almost never works.

Here locally, both the County and the City will soon have new managers. Isn’t it their job to lead that change?

Yes. But.

Real, deep, long-term change in a democratic society never comes by getting them to do it. That sort of change remains shallow and vulnerable until we accept that we are responsible, that we are a critical part of this, perhaps the critical part. Institutions that don’t have to be accountable to the community eventually won’t be. If we want to see sustained data-driven policy and decision-making in our community, we must accept our own responsibility for expecting it of our institutions. That shared sense of responsibility and shared expectation is the culture I’m talking about.

The next question, of course, is how? Culture isn’t something we can wish, decree or cajole into existence, especially not in a large, diverse community. How are we supposed to go about building it?

First, it’s worth noting that it’s already started, at least here in Asheville. I suspect we’re not alone. I have been surprised and impressed over the last couple years by how often activists and local community leaders talk about data, about the need to use data in their advocacy and solution-finding. These aren’t policy wonks and data geeks, they’re activists from Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, local homeless advocates, transportation activists, advocates for the elderly. The word is out. And, like it or not, local institutions are having to change to accommodate them.

That is precisely the kind of catalyst to institutional change that I’m talking about.

But can we take this even broader? Can we make data-driven culture popular? The question seems absurd. But I don’t think it is, and, in fact, I think we have an excellent tool to help answer it.

The Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework was developed by Mark Friedman around the turn of the century. Use of the framework has grown dramatically since the publication of his book, Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough. It has become a nationally accepted standard for effective data-driven decision-making that keeps things centered on the communities that are impacted.

The framework maintains a clear distinction between community indicators, which measure “the progress a community is making towards achieving community well-being,” and performance measures, which assess how well an organization or program performs for the specific customers who benefit from its services. Institutions are held accountable for their performance, but we always also attend to the impact of their programs on the broader community.

There is much depth to explore in RBA, but I think its power lies especially in its simplicity. To get at the most important performance measures for a program or service, RBA asks three simple questions:

  • How much did we do?
  • How well did we do it?
  • Is anyone better off?

I don’t know about you, but that looks to me almost like a chant: “How much did you do? How well did you do it? Is anyone better off? Show us the numbers!” The beauty is that it is stated so anyone can understand while simultaneously aligning with a nationally accepted performance management framework.

What if local activists, local media, individuals and community groups consistently asked these questions of government staff, elected officials, university administrators, local anchor employers, any institution who claims a role in improving outcomes for the community through its programs? Could it eventually just be a given that these questions must be answered for any program or initiative? Could it just become an integral part of our local culture?

Perhaps it’s a silly thought, but I’m having trouble letting it go. What do you think?