5 Ways Governments Can Make the American Rescue Plan Work for All
By Nichole Dunn, Zachary Markovits, and Jen Tolentino
For cities and states still coping with the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal relief money has helped avert some painful decisions on budget cuts. But if state, local, and tribal officials take a business-as-usual approach to the American Rescue Plan (ARP), they risk missing out on the best opportunity in decades to make government work better for the whole community.
Now is not the time to return to the days of spreading assistance like “peanut butter,” leaving everyone with something but failing to make lasting change. By prioritizing funding for initiatives that have proven, long-term results, local leaders can reinvigorate economic mobility in their communities, giving renewed hope for those who have been historically left behind.
The $350 billion that went into ARP’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) represents a powerful tool for governments to move beyond the traditional service-delivery model of governing and focus instead on the outcomes leaders want to see in their communities. It represents the biggest federal program to help state and local governments build and use data and evidence to achieve long-sought progress.
When the Biden administration unveiled the program in March, it encouraged state, local, and tribal governments to take advantage of the one-time infusion of dollars to make better decisions and maximize impact. Achieving that became more likely with the guidance from the Treasury Department, which demonstrated the administration’s commitment to evidence-based interventions focused on advancing outcomes.
We were pleased to see that the guidance on how state and local governments should spend and report on the funding reflected some of the key recommendations made by Results for America for promoting a more equitable and long-lasting recovery by leveraging data and evidence. The framework encourages state, local, and tribal governments to invest in solutions with evidence of effectiveness. And it backs that up by requiring officials to track certain cradle-to-career outcomes that will advance economic mobility, such as evidence-based tutoring, job training, and home visiting programs.
The Recovery Plan Performance Reports submitted by local governments to the U.S. Treasury Department over the summer showed signs of progress toward an “invest in what works” approach. The new ARP Data and Evidence Dashboard — created by Results for America and Mathematica, which reviewed the spending plans of 150 cities, counties and tribal nations — found that 21 percent of jurisdictions demonstrate clear investments in evidence-based interventions, and another 35 percent demonstrate promising investments in evidence-based interventions.
To ensure the recovery is accompanied by advances in economic mobility and racial equity, state, local and tribal officials should leverage the following five key data, evidence and outcomes provisions of the ARP program:
1. Build and strengthen your data and evidence capacity.
One of the provisions in Treasury’s guidance with the potential to transform a one-time investment into long-term prosperity is the support for strengthening governments’ capacity to collect and analyze data and evidence.
Our work with officials at the local, state, and federal level to establish and share best practices for data-driven governance shows the long-term dividends of investing in capacity. For example, when the pandemic struck, Cincinnati already had the analytical firepower in place to quickly respond to the health crisis, thanks to the work and investment put into building a system to tackle the opioid epidemic.
So far, only 31% of the initial ARP spending plans we analyzed showed clear investments in building data and evidence capacity. However, there are some leading practices. Washington, D.C., already advanced in its use of evidence to evaluate effectiveness, is investing in a Launch, Evaluation, and Monitoring (LEM) hub that will further develop its capacity.
When considering how to invest in capacity, local leaders should look at these examples — and others from our work with jurisdictions around the country — with the idea of adopting and scaling promising strategies. Governments should also invest in staff and infrastructure to enhance their ability to use data and evidence in procurements and policy decisions-making.
2. Use data and evidence as part of your decision-making process.
Leveraging the data and evidence at hand, governments should identify how they can maximize the impact of their federal dollars. Encouraging officials to develop solutions based on evidence, the Treasury Department has established a tiered system based on the strength of evidence supporting each plan.
The administration also recommends using “evidence clearinghouses” to help assess the level of evidence in existing projects and to explore ideas that have proven to be successful elsewhere. As we explore in a separate article, local officials can turn to Results for America’s Economic Mobility Catalog for help in identifying successful approaches that are grounded in evidence.
So far, about one in five jurisdictions are using ARP assistance for projects backed by strong evidence. One city that’s using an evidence-driven approach to directing funding to where it’s needed most is San Jose. The California city is following a roadmap that’s designed to use data and evidence to foster an equitable recovery.
Jurisdictions should explore other areas in which to prioritize data and evidence, such as using results-based contracts or defining and prioritizing evidence in grants. They also need to report spending on evidence-based initiatives.
3. Invest in evaluation.
If sufficient evidence for an innovative initiative or pilot project is lacking, it’s important to invest in evaluation to build evidence and understand the impact so that future leaders can learn from the experience and program tweaks can be made.
Under the Treasury guidance, governments need to specify whether projects are based on evidence or are being evaluated. If a project is put under evaluation, the government doesn’t have to report on whether it has also used the funding on evidence-based solutions.
An area of weakness in early results from ARP spending plans around the country, clear investments in evaluation are seen in just 15% of jurisdictions, and promising investments in evaluation are seen in another 29% of jurisdictions. About half of reports haven’t indicated any level of evaluation.
One positive standout is Madison, Wisconsin, which is investing in an external evaluator to both design a study and independently assess the effectiveness of a pilot program that takes an alternative approach to handling mental health crisis calls. Under the program, those calls will be routed to a response team made up of paramedics and mental health specialists, instead of law enforcement.
Jurisdictions looking to invest in evaluation should seek to collaborate with a diverse set of researchers and to engage with the local community in designing their studies. They should also collect and report on data and performance indicators, including any of the nationally mandated evaluations that Treasury is conducting itself.
4. Engage with your communities.
Community engagement is key to any successful program, and it’s even more important now to ensure the recovery is equitable and widely shared. Treasury’s guidance encourages governments to seek and incorporate feedback from a diverse range of residents and community-based organizations.
Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses Chicago and its suburbs, recognizes the importance of a robust engagement process to hear directly from residents on how federal aid could be most effective. To that end, it is partnering with a local professional organization and diverse community organizations to help conduct outreach. The county has also set up a community website, newsletter, and social media toolkit to educate and engage with residents.
When seeking to forge partnerships with community-based organizations, local leaders should enable meaningful engagement not just in planning projects, but also implementing projects. To reduce barriers to participation, they should also support grantees, evaluators, and service providers that represent communities of color and other disenfranchised populations by providing technical assistance.
5. Ensure equitable outcomes.
The government recovery programs are a tremendous opportunity to address deep-seated disparities across the country, and Treasury emphasizes the importance of promoting strong, equitable growth. Ensuring equitable outcomes starts with recognizing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic-related recession on low-income communities, so juridictions are asked to report on whether certain types of projects, such as food and housing assistance, are targeted to economically disadvantaged communities.
Equity has been an early area of relative strength among ARP plans, with 77% of jurisdictions making clear or promising investments to ensure equitable outcomes. King County, Washington, home of Seattle, has been proactive in addressing what it acknowledges are “deeply entrenched” social, economic, and environmental inequities. The county has developed pro-equity tools for designing programs and a number of dashboards to track how the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities and creating new ones.
In seeking to prioritize racial and other equities and reduce disparities in their spending plans, jurisdictions should use data and evaluation to maximize the impact of projects. A key part of that is to disaggregate data by race, ethnicity, and other equity dimensions.
State, local, and tribal leaders still have time to develop plans to ensure they’re making the most of the federal aid money, since the funds will remain available until 2024. But the ongoing threat of the pandemic creates a sense of urgency. It also presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a smarter, more responsive government that works for the whole community.
Nichole Dunn is the Vice President of Federal Policy at Results for America
Zachary Markovits is the Vice President of Local Government and Managing Director for the What Works Cities initiative at Results for America
Jen Tolentino in a Senior Advisor with Results for America