The nitty-gritty of going beyond GDP

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

How to bring the message home

Kristen Lewis, co-director of the American Human Development Project, said that how the benchmark data is presented to the public can make a big difference in how it is received.

“If you’re trying to persuade someone and you give them a black-and-white typed report that is 50 pages long and at the back has 30 tables that make your point really well with numbers and you give that to a regular person, and you try to show them that’s why they should change the policy…they are not really going to be persuaded,” Lewis said. “You have to…use the numbers to tell a convincing story.”

The timing of how the information is released can also make a difference, Lewis said. GDP, for example, is published every quarter. But with life expectancy or other health and education indicators, “there’s nothing like that — there’s no fanfare,” Lewis said. “That’s very problematic.”

“The more media is on board and actually understands the indicators, the bigger the chance that the data will actually be reported and in such a fashion that the community can actually engage around whatever the topics are that they’re bringing forward,” said the head of a local nonprofit.

Lewis said for indicators such as life expectancy that don’t change much from year to year, it wouldn’t make sense to publish them as frequently. But other indicators, such as the birth weight of babies, are amenable to short-term policy change, she said.

Birth weight is a “very sensitive indicator for the health of the population,” Lewis said. “So if that is collected and published, and policymakers use that and talk about wanting to change it and build policy around it and actually use it to measure change, then that would be great [and] a lot would happen in terms of population health.”

Karen Hruby, executive director of Truckee Meadows Tomorrow, a nonprofit that oversees indicator data in northwestern Nevada, said the media has a crucial role to play as well. “The more media is on board and actually understands the indicators, the bigger the chance that the data will actually be reported and in such a fashion that the community can actually engage around whatever the topics are that they’re bringing forward,” she said.

The Reno Gazette-Journal has used indicator data to examine the underlying causes of problems affecting the region, Hruby said. In its reporting on the region’s economic troubles, for example, the newspaper has looked at how education and innovation factor in. “It’s nice to say we’re going to get out of economic slump here if we just create jobs, but nobody’s got the magic wand,” she said. “They started to dig deeper and say, ‘What’s the reason behind why we don’t have more jobs?’” she continued. “‘Let’s talk about what other problems do we have? Do we have an educated workforce. No. OK how do we address that?’ It starts to go from there.”

The paper held forums with members of the community to discuss solutions to the problem. Eventually, policymakers began to show up and participate at the forums, including county commissioners and city council members, Hruby said. After community members said it was important for the region to develop alternative sources of energy, Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks all set renewable energy targets, she said.

Jacksonville case study, part 2: what happens when legislators don’t listen

The benchmark program is a trusted and well respected source for elected officials and stakeholders, Warner said. “Of the ones that don’t use it directly, people who go and lobby them often use it,” he said. Still, at times policymakers only refer to the benchmarks when they show support for a favored cause, and ignore the indicators if they are unflattering.

If officials refuse to address a problem, then indicators can serve as a way to spur the community into action, Warner said. For example, when JCCI education data showed sizable achievement gaps when it was broken down by income and race and ethnicity, the official school system response was, “There is no achievement gap,” Warner said.

But when JCCI presented the data to the public, “the community reaction to it was one of these a-ha moments,” Warner said. “They said we knew that there was a problem, we didn’t know the problem was this big, and we didn’t understand how important it was that we as a community address this issue, and now that we understand that we’re going to demand change.”

The next time the school board advertised for a superintendent, the primary job criterion was the ability to address the achievement gap, Warner said. “It was just simply persistent sharing of information and the community getting involved and saying, ‘This is important to me, it needs to be important to the schools.’”

Remapping Debate asked Warner if he would favor having statutes in place that would mandate that lawmakers be responsive to benchmarks when they indicate a severe problem. For example, a policy trigger could be instituted to compel lawmakers to act if an indicator reached a predetermined threshold.

Warner said he was wary of building policy around a particular number. He said he would be worried that those responsible would try to change the number rather than address the underlying problem.

For example, when Florida first instituted standardized testing, school systems trying to get a leg up started moving school start dates back earlier and earlier so they would have extra time before the test date.

“Was that in the best interest of the kids? Probably not,” Warner said. “It was trying to change the numbers rather than trying to have a real substantive change in the way kids were learning.” Warner said that similar problems had arisen when benchmarks were viewed simply as ends in themselves, “instead of something telling you about a larger issue.”

“Our role in the community is that of building collaborative partnerships,” Warner said. “If [the indicators] aren’t galvanizing the community as a whole,” he continued, “then they’re not going to galvanize your elected officials.”


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