Build Back Better
How Policymakers Can Use Evidence and Data to Accelerate Recovery Efforts and Advance Economic Mobility
By Michele Jolin and David Medina
During his recent State of the City Address, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took a break from describing the collective trauma and rising economic and public health devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic to ask city residents a question: “When we do return, who do we want to be?”
The crisis, he said, had exposed the deep cracks in his city and all across the country — disparities in economic opportunity, health care, housing, and education that have only been exacerbated by the Coronavirus — and trying to return to the “normal” of a few months ago was no longer acceptable.
“The real question — the real test — is how we will come back,” Mayor Garcetti said. “Not just our initial response and recovery, but our commitment to each other and to long term change.”
On the other side of the country, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the founder of Schmidt Futures, will lead a 15-member commission to “reimagine how our state can build back better.” The Governor also enlisted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to convene experts to consider what education should look like in the future.
A growing number of leaders from across the political spectrum are seeing the same opportunity — a chance to not just meet the immediate needs of residents suffering from mass layoffs, illness or hunger, but to develop, test and implement bold evidence-based solutions to accelerate our economic recovery and advance economic mobility over the long-term, especially for our most vulnerable residents.
With the right support and encouragement, these results-driven leaders can help us reshape government to make smarter decisions and better investments, and help America build back better than before.
Writer and historian Anne Applebaum wrote recently that “epidemics, like disasters, have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.” In America, we are seeing it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. We are seeing it in the millions of low-income workers who have lost jobs, with only a patchwork of supports to help them survive. We are seeing it in government systems straining to provide health care, unemployment benefits, loans to small businesses, and food assistance to those that need it most.
The pandemic is also testing the strength of our leaders. When Axios recently released its list of bipartisan leaders who have distinguished themselves during this crisis, it recognized Governors and mayors who acted swiftly and decisively based on evidence and science, and who were honest with residents about the severity of the crisis. They ranged from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) — the first governor to end in-person classes for the school year — to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) — who has faced some resistance for “following logic and science” in imposing local restrictions.
“All of these officials did the opposite of the traditional political playbook, which tells politicians to reassure people and play down threats,” Axios Managing Editor David Nather wrote.
These same leadership traits — candor with the public and the courage to make decisions based on evidence and facts — will be even more important in the next phase of the government’s response. As they shift from crisis management to recovery, many leaders will face the stark reality of meeting deeper needs with fewer resources as the revenues that sustain state and local governments plummet.
“This is the high point of government necessity … This is when you need government to work like you have never needed it to work in your lifetime, with the highest consequences.”
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Since the crisis began, our team at Results for America has been fielding requests from Governors’ staffs, state education and workforce officials, Mayors and County Executives who want to build their data capabilities, evaluate which interventions are working and which aren’t, and maximize the impact of new federal stimulus investments. We’ve been sharing innovative federal, state and local COVID-19 responses. We’ve offered our ideas, highlighted evidence-based programs and research-practice partnerships that could help vulnerable groups, and connected overburdened governments to help from our partners.
Spurred on by the crisis, public servants in city, county, state, and federal governments have been advancing results-driven strategies that could help strengthen longer-term recovery efforts. Here are a just few:
- The Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board — by unanimous vote at a virtual meeting earlier this month — adopted evidence definitions that will help state and local workforce leaders and providers assess the effectiveness of workforce programs and investments.
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration just approved an innovative Pay for Performance contract by Northern Virginia workforce leaders that links Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds directly with positive outcomes — earning a degree or certification, getting a job, staying on a career path — for at-risk adults who are coming out of foster care or juvenile justice systems.
- In Baltimore, city leaders set up data tracking systems to support service delivery and provide timely information for policymakers and the public, including a COVID-19 Data Dashboard that tracks cases by demographics and zip code. They created a customizable map to help residents find food distribution sites within a mile or less of their homes.
- King County (WA) built a user-friendly data dashboard that provides the public access to data, analysis, and resources in areas such as education, food, health, housing, transportation, and public safety, as well as an interactive COVID-19 Vulnerable Communities Data Tool developed specifically to help communities in King County most impacted by the Coronavirus.
Evidence and data will be critical to helping governments target resources where they are needed most, and cities like Los Angeles are already putting it at the center of their responses. For policymakers who are testing new solutions — from eviction moratoriums and direct cash transfers to new interventions to help the homeless — gathering evidence of what works is essential to improve these approaches and share the most effective solutions with other leaders. This “test-learn-adapt” approach will help in immediate recovery efforts and it will build the capacity within governments to make higher-impact decisions on how to target investments and improve public services in the years to come.
Unemployed workers, hungry families and hard-hit small business owners shouldn’t have to face broken websites or spend hours on hold on government hotlines to access basic safety net services. They shouldn’t have to face burdensome application processes that are “weaponized” to deny them benefits. With record numbers of Americans applying for assistance like SNAP, we must help governments update both the policies and the technology to make these benefits easily accessible to all those who need them.
Never in our lifetimes has there been a more urgent need for high-functioning, data-driven government. As Governor Cuomo said at a recent daily briefing, “This is the high point of government necessity, and competence, and performance, and accuracy. This is when you need government to work like you have never needed it to work in your lifetime, with the highest consequences.”
When this crisis finally recedes, the leaders who will be remembered will not be those who pointed fingers, shifted responsibility to others, or made decisions based on narrow political interests. The public will remember government leaders who acted based on evidence and the advice of experts, who were candid about the risks and trade-offs of their policies, and who committed to not just restore the country to “normal,” but to make it stronger and more equitable than before.
Michele Jolin is CEO and Co-Founder of Results for America. David Medina is COO and Co-Founder of Results for America.