The Importance of Focusing on the Right Results, Data and Systems Changes

This blog post was written in response to a group blogging event, hosted by Living Cities, which asks, “What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster?” Learn more about the event and how to participate.

The sounds of renewed interest in transforming cities are reverberating all across the country. If this generation of change efforts succeeds as I think it could and hope it will, we would see truly “living cities” – places where everyone, especially low income families, would live, grow, work and thrive. I am hopeful that this potential actually will be realized because we are learning so much about what makes for powerful ‘urban practice’.

Thanks to the leadership of Living Cities and other innovative organizations, and the hard work of so many people in cities across the country, we’re beginning to see signs of this new urban practice taking root. We see cross-sector partnerships that enable collective impact; genuine engagement of a broad range of constituents; new forms of financing, including a wide range of ‘pay for success’ models; and commitment from anchor institutions and other drivers of economic vitality to contribute to community well-being and vibrancy.

To this list of necessary ingredients, I would add three emerging lessons that I think are particularly important:

Lofty rhetoric doesn’t drive real impact.

Focus relentlessly on the right results

The staggering commitment of time and resources that truly transformative efforts require pays off if we use that muscle to tackle really tough problems at full scale. That means we need to aim at improving well-being at the population level. But lofty rhetoric doesn’t drive real impact. What does is choosing specific, critical measures and reporting on them regularly. Being specific about what exactly we are aiming to impact and for what population helps keep the pulse on whether and where our collective efforts are moving the needle or falling short on school readiness, high school graduation or steady employment and doing so for all of the children or families in a neighborhood, city or state.

Dive deeply into the data

Baselines and progress measures are fundamental to any effective urban change effort but that is not where the real power lies. Going beyond descriptive data to sophisticated analysis of what the data mean – the story behind the data – can help our efforts be more effectively focused and calibrated. Some of the most important stories emerge only when data are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, immigrant status, income level or geography. We will move the needle for whole populations only when we understand and match interventions to the circumstances and needs of different segments of the population.

Keep bad systems from trumping good programs

The current generation of urban initiatives do a good job of engaging multiple sectors, including public systems. Too often, though, we don’t pay enough attention to the need for innovation within those systems. Eligibility and referral practices, resource allocation and accountability systems can undermine the best-laid plans if not aligned with priorities and accountable to shared results. The process of re-engineering and realignment needed may be tough and tedious but can mean the difference between short-lived small gains and long-term transformational change.

These three lessons can help to ensure that the work to transform cities is undertaken with the combination of ambition and rigor that can convert the promise of these efforts into real impact that puts low income children and families on a clear pathway to success.