How Philanthropy Can Help Governments Accelerate a Real Recovery

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by Michele Jolin & David Medina 

Philanthropic dollars can play a unique role in catalyzing the public sector’s transformation toward data-driven leadership and decision-making.

The cracks and design flaws of our nation’s public systems have been starkly exposed as governments everywhere struggle to respond to health and economic crises that disproportionately devastate Black residents and communities of color. As government leaders respond to the immediate emergencies, they also operate within a legacy of government practices, policies and systems that have played a central role in creating and maintaining racial inequity.

Philanthropy can play a unique and catalytic role in accelerating a real recovery by helping government leaders make smarter decisions, helping them develop and effectively use the data-and-evidence capacity they need to spotlight and understand root causes of community challenges, especially racial disparities, and increase the impact of government investments that could close racial gaps and accelerate economic opportunity. Philanthropy can uniquely support leaders within government who are best positioned to redesign and reimagine public systems to deliver equity and impact.

We are already seeing that the growing number of governments that have built data-driven “Moneyball” muscles are better positioned both to manage through this crisis and to dismantle racist government practices. While we recognize that data and evidence can sometimes reinforce biases, we also know that government decision-makers who have access to more and better information—and who are trained to navigate the nuance and possible bias in this information—can use data to identify disparate racial outcomes, understand the core problems and target resources to close gaps. Government decision-makers who have the skills to test, learn, and improve government programs can prioritize resource allocation toward programs that both deliver better results and address the complexity of social problems.

Philanthropy can accelerate this public sector transformation by supporting change led by internal government champions who are challenging the status quo. By doing so, philanthropic leaders can increase the impact of the trillions of dollars invested by governments each year. Philanthropies such as Ballmer Group, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Blue Meridian Partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Arnold Ventures understand this and are already putting their money where their mouths are. By helping governments make smarter budget and policy decisions, they can ensure that public dollars flow toward solutions that make a meaningful, measurable difference on our biggest challenges, whether it’s increasing economic mobility, reducing racial disparities in health and other outcomes, or addressing racial bias in government systems.

We need other donors to join them in prioritizing this kind of systems change.

Concrete, Credible Hope

Demand from governments is strong—and will only grow stronger, regardless of the outcome of the local, state, and national elections in November. The public increasingly expects governments to use data for decision-making, and we’re already seeing it: since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our colleagues at Results for America have been swamped with requests for advice from Republican and Democratic leaders, especially at the state and local level. Mayors facing record unemployment and soaring deficits want to know what works—for whom and under what circumstances—and what they can learn from other cities. Governors need help improving access to unemployment benefits and strengthening workforce systems to connect jobless residents with training and new jobs. State and local education leaders want to know how to prevent learning loss and meet the urgent mental health and other needs of students and educators.

We’ve supported these state and local leaders in a number of ways, including, for example, by collaborating with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and leading education researchers to produce rapid-turnaround “EdResearch for Recovery” briefs to help answer their questions. In addition to advising state and local leaders, we’ve also been connecting them with U.S. Digital Response, which offers thousands of trained volunteer experts, and the Bloomberg Philanthropies COVID-19 Local Response Initiative, which gives mayors access to health and economic experts who can give them the best possible information to inform their decisions.

Never before has data-driven leadership and decision-making been on such vivid public display. In the early days of the pandemic, data-informed decisions by local leaders such as San Francisco Mayor London Breed were credited with helping to flatten the curve and save lives. In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s “calm, sober, and data-driven” response to the crisis has been praised by state residents, offering what one commentator called “a blueprint for competent conservative governance.” As COVID-19 cases have risen in many states as they loosen restrictions, the public can measure the results of their elected leaders’ decisions in daily data tracking of new cases and deaths.

Data also is helping drive the debate over long-overdue policy changes to reduce police violence, with growing calls for more transparency in police data to hold police departments accountable and end unjust policies and practices.

Even in the age of Trump, the federal government has been quietly building its muscle memory of how to use evidence and data to increase impact: in 2012, only 13 percent of the major federal programs offering human services grants prioritized evidence, but the percentage had more than doubled by 2019, to 28 percent, according to an analysis by Results for America. For example, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed in 2015, gave states and local districts money and authority to design their education systems to meet their own needs—as long as the new designs were based on evidence. Nevada now steers more than $200 million in federal and state education funds a year toward evidence-based solutions, and Nevada’s schools made the largest gains of any state in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2019 report. And the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, was signed into law during the partial government shutdown of 2019. It’s working well: with helpful guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, civil servants are treating it as an opportunity to meaningfully improve results rather than a check-the-box compliance exercise.

Where Money Is Needed Now

Philanthropy holds a key to building on this momentum. Philanthropic dollars can be put to work immediately to improve the impact of government investments, dismantle racist government structures, and drive long-term systems change in the following ways:

1. Invest in racial equity partners that support government change. Partners like the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), National League of Cities REAL initiative, PolicyLink, Racial Equity Here, and dozens of others are helping governments actively work to advance racial equity. “Racial inequities are not random; they have been created and sustained over time,” as GARE reminds us, and “Inequities will not disappear on their own.” Government decision-makers therefore need new tools and skills and to be held accountable for progress. But there is enormous demand on the part of government leaders for this kind of support and access to these tools. Philanthropists should invest today—and for the long term—in the work these racial equity partners do for governments, to meet this growing demand.

2. Support governments to target resources for greater impact. Governments need a real-time picture of the equity and mobility issues that can be mitigated by government investments as well as issues being caused by government action, anything and everything from racial disparities in health outcomes and disparate enrollment in early-childhood programs to racist policing practices. Philanthropy can invest in efforts like Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), which has helped hundreds of governments create necessary data infrastructure. GovEx helps local governments inventory their data assets, create visualization tools to enable better decision-making, and analyze data to help policymakers answer key questions. Similarly, Harvard’s Government Performance Lab (GPL) has helped states contract for outcomes, which is overhauling governments’ service delivery to kids and families. These approaches will improve immediate decision-making to accelerate and make more equitable our nation’s recovery, and they have the lasting benefit of helping governments build the muscle to make higher-impact, more-targeted decisions about government resources for years to come.

3. “Test, learn, adapt” to understand which innovations are worth making permanent. Governments are using the combination of deep need and the Federal infusion of funding to roll out new strategies to protect residents from more harm. These strategies include eviction moratoriums, direct cash transfers that could help us learn more about the universal basic income approach, partnering with local restaurants for large-scale meal distribution to low-income residents, reducing jail populations, and outreach programs to ensure access to benefits (like unemployment insurance, food benefits, and other programs).

To learn how these strategies work for real people, we must go beyond collecting anecdotes. Philanthropy can enlist experts at the Behavioral Insights Team, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and Project Evident to help governments test, learn from, and adapt these innovations. Philanthropy also can invest in qualitative research to help governments understand end users’ perspectives on what’s working. In a vivid illustration of how this kind of research can benefit residents, Code for America asks on its website, “What if all government services were this good?” next to this image.

4. Speed the spread of effective innovations to other governments. Communities across the country are addressing many of the same challenges. While some communities are “hyper-networked,” many more are not connected to the best forums for learning and will be left behind. To speed the spread of promising ideas between governments and support peer-learning, Results for America has developed a well-tested government-leader fellowship that partners current government leaders with peers and experts to drive faster progress. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative accelerates the spread of promising solutions through “Solutions Sprints,” with content delivered over a series of weeks through virtual sessions. Philanthropy can invest in efforts to connect peers in governments to speed adoption of strategies that will increase equity and get better results, while also helping to create a much bigger cohort of hyper-networked communities.

5. Enlist governments to integrate and align with the work of place-based partnerships. While there are some examples of governments being true partners in a community’s collective-impact effort (e.g., Memphis, Racine), too often governments do not act on the invaluable data, community voice, vision, and targets created by place-based partnerships. Given the severity and complexity of the immediate challenges facing communities, governments need to integrate and align their responses with that of local place-based partnerships to rapidly understand needs of residents, set bold targets, and shift government resources to make faster progress in meeting these targets. Philanthropy can invest in the kind of dramatic alignment between governments and place-based partnerships that organizations like StriveTogether and Community Solutions are driving.

Moneyball or Groundhog Day?

While we are proud of the work we accomplished with our colleagues as part of the Obama Administration’s White House team, advancing the use of data and evidence in decision-making, 20/20 hindsight makes it easy to see that we also missed a lot of opportunities. Our biggest regret is that we didn’t take a bolder, more sweeping approach. For example, the 2009 stimulus should have included specific funding for testing and evaluating what works at the state and local level. If we had included this, we would have established a precedent for the 2020 COVID-19 recovery effort.

Still, we can learn from the past. The coronavirus and the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (among so many others) have laid bare the painful realities of our society, from a public health system that is not a comprehensive system at all, to economic inequalities that have made it impossible for millions of low-income workers to stay home and keep their families safe, to brutal law enforcement practices that put the lives and safety of Black residents and other people of color in jeopardy every day. But instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again, philanthropy is in a unique position to help governments respond to these longstanding injustices, address deep racial divides, and help communities reimagine and redesign their governments to better serve all their residents.

The views and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the foundations and organizations mentioned in this piece. Results for America has received support for programs and initiatives from Ballmer Group, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Blue Meridian Partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Arnold Ventures

Michele Jolin (@michelejolin) is CEO and Co-Founder of Results for America, and previously served as a Senior Advisor for Social Innovation at the White House under President Obama and as a Member of the White House Council for Community Solutions.

David Medina (@DavidMedinaDC) is COO and Co-Founder of Results for America, and previously served in the Obama Administration as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff and as the Peace Corps’ Public Engagement Director.
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