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Why hide from data?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been doing research into the challenges municipalities face when they want to hire a diverse workforce. One important step, it's clear, is to gather the data necessary to see how closely the demographics of the personnel in a city’s agencies – and the entity as a whole – mirror those for the city itself, and to use that information as a performance measure to guide the improvements the city is making in creating workforce diversity.

Some places do an excellent job at this, and you’ll be able to read more about that in the column we’re writing for Route Fifty.

But others don’t. The same thing is true for a host of other areas in which good data can be of help, but it's simply not gathered. All of which leads us to consider the following question: “Why Not?”

Two reasons emerge. The first one is regrettable, though understandable: For localities, particularly smaller ones, there’s often an absence of the resources necessary to gather data or to establish and work with performance measures. Though this may be short sighted, we can certainly understand that there's pressure to use limited resources on direct services, like sanitation, pot-hole filling or public safety.

It's a simple equation: Clean up the potholes and it’ll help you get re-elected. Measure the number of potholes and nobody will notice. The simple political reality of this was conveyed to us many year ago by the long-time mayor of Indianapolis William Hudnut, who said (and we’re paraphrasing here, as it’s hard to find notes from the early 1990s): “The real measure of my success is clear when people vote.”

But the second reason is somewhat more troublesome and it's come up, in off-the-record portions of a number of conversations we've had over the years: Sometimes elected officials don’t want to gather data because they fear it will make them look bad.

Here’s where the political realities of life run headlong into our quest to help states and localities provide better management and policy. We know that our philosophy may seem to be a little naïve, but we believe – or at least want to believe -- that people go into public service to make the world a better place. And standing in the way of the kind of data-gathering that can help inform that mission simply doesn’t help.

As we wrote in our book, The Promises and Pitfalls of Performance-Informed Management, “Multiple examples show the success of performance management efforts,” to creating improvements in “the way services and programs are delivered.”

What’s more, even from a purely political standpoint, undermining efforts to gather and analyze data can be counterproductive. Acknowledging and quantifying, the problems a city, county or state faces gives them the opportunity to boast about progress even if it’s not immediately apparent to the public.

Consider, for example, the recent good news that childhood poverty rates had dropped from 9.7 percent in 2020 to 5.2 percent in 2021. While one out of 20 children living in poverty is still too many, the press publicized that change as unquestionably positive. But if nobody had been keeping the data in the first place, we think that most people would have been unaware of this dramatic improvement based only on personal experience.

Going back into the time tunnel again, we recall how impressed we were in the early 1990s when Alabama’s leaders took a very poor grade in our evaluations of state government management capacity for the long-defunct Financial World magazine and compared them to our prior --- and even worse—evaluation. The state got some very positive reports in the local press by pointing to the improvement, with promises of more to come.

Hiding from the truth doesn’t make it go away. But confronting the truth can help to change it for the better.


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