Data or Confetti: Making Decisions for Kids

2013JeffCoDataBook_FrontCoverI am a fan of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s approach to decision-making for our kids’ future. He has quietly and persistently introduced a culture in which data and good research are driving systems change.  While his approach may not always be filled with confetti and pep rallies in City Hall, it is a profound one that gets results. Early in his administration, Kentucky Youth Advocates released its annual Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book, in which we look at child well-being in multiple areas on the county level. If it is about kids and is measurable, we apply metrics to it!

I was surprised but delighted to receive a call from Mayor Fischer after the Kentucky book was released. He wanted a more granular and geographically-based analysis of certain indicators for children in Louisville. His questions were on-target.

  • Are there geographic differences in the well-being of Jefferson County kids and if so, do some measures show greater divergence across parts of the city than other measures?
  • Why is the asthma rate spiking?
  • Do neighborhood numbers for student educational achievement look different than state-level data?
  • Are overall county trend-lines reflected in neighborhood trend-lines or do neighborhoods make a difference?

Unfortunately, I had to say that we didn’t break down data at a micro or local level. He asked, “Why not?” My blunt answer was that we didn’t have the financial backing for such a process.

Due to the Mayor’s leadership and the civic-minded philanthropy of the James Graham Brown Foundation that answer has changed. Kentucky Youth Advocates just released the Jefferson County KIDS COUNT Data Book, which highlights child well-being indicators broken out by the 26 Metro Council Districts.

Mayor Fischer’s inquiry and drive for that level of data is an exemplar of how leaders should lead. Other leaders across the state have taken that approach as well. As an example, United Way of Greater Cincinnati convened regional KIDS COUNT forums in which data was shared on a nine-county basis, and then county-level teams worked to think about their individual community’s “kid priorities.” County judges in that region of the Commonwealth did not just compare themselves with neighboring counties; instead, they benchmarked their community’s progress against competitor counties north of Cincinnati.  Through this, KIDS COUNT has become an economic development tool for leaders such as County Judge Executive Gary Moore in Boone County.

In a similar vein, some 23 southeastern Kentucky counties convened an Appalachian KIDS COUNT forum under the auspices of Eastern Kentucky University’s Regional Stewardship Office.  There was an unusual alliance of school, health and business leaders who came together. These leaders dug deeply and asked hard questions, like:

  • “Why do two neighboring counties have dramatically different results for children?”
  • “Why is our county so good on health outcomes and so poor on safety ones?”
  • “Just how pervasive is the effect of persistent poverty on health and education outcomes in our region?”

Mayor Fischer’s championing voice on the KIDS COUNT Project was essential to push both KYA and the local philanthropic community towards creating this Council District-based data tool.  But now the question is, “So what?”  Any data report, including the national, state, regional or county level versions of KIDS COUNT, can become a dust collector on a file cabinet.  Or that same report can become a catalyst for problem-solving and making a difference in the lives of children.  Louisville can learn a lot about data-based decision making from those county judge executives in Northern Kentucky and superintendents, business leaders and health champions in southeastern Kentucky.  The challenge and opportunity is there for Metro Council members; school board members; and neighborhood voices to pair the portrait of their local community’s children with knowledge of their community.  They can use that data to make a difference.  We need numbers to be sure.  But we also need engagement on the data among community members including elected leaders or neighborhood residents from Hyden to the Highlands and from Paducah to Portland.

Carly Florina, former head of Helwitt Packard and a most thoughtful national Republican voice for kids, asserts, “The goal is to translate data into insight.” Here’s to hoping the Louisville community will take this neighborhood look at kids and take action to improve child outcomes.  And here’s to hoping that every county in Kentucky will begin that same process as we prepare to release the next edition of the Kentucky KIDS COUNT book in six weeks.  That Scottish writer William Arthur Conan must have been channeling his literary creation Sherlock Holmes when he wrote, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Data and progress for kids: “It’s elementary, Kentucky!”

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