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Beyond Good Intentions: Using Data to Promote Economic Opportunity.

February 16, 2012

By Benton Murphy Program Officer, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

When you hear the word “data,” what springs to mind? Your dreaded math class back in high school? Morning radio stories bringing more bad news on the state of our economy? A roomful of scientists huddled around a computer screen? Whatever the word conjures for you, relatively few amongst us would characterize data as “sexy.”

Which is a shame, actually. Sexy issues seem to get the lion’s share of media, political, and funder attention these days. Sexy issues grab headlines and pull heartstrings because they seem important, immediate, and interesting.

In partnership with our colleagues at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, DC Appleseed, and the DC Jobs Council, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region’s Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative released a new policy brief today, Beyond Good Intentions: Using Data to Promote Economic Opportunity. The brief makes recommendations on how to improve the District’s outcomes for workers by strengthening its capacity to collect, analyze, and use data, setting forth a vision for instilling a data-driven culture in the District’s workforce development system.

We’d like to make the argument that the way we use, collect, and analyze data is worthy of a headline or two.

Data is surely important in making decisions. We all use data every day—from deciding whether to drive to work or take Metro when it’s snowing to deciding whether or not to eat that second donut at breakfast, we all use the information around us to help us make the decisions that shape our lives. Effectively using data to inform the big decisions on how to best serve local workers seeking employment or job training is a huge issue in the District, largely because it doesn’t have a lot of this data in the first place. The District simply does not have the data and information it needs to decide priorities, track progress, evaluate programs, and make improvements. The policy brief argues that improving the workforce development system’s ability to collect, analyze, and use data to improve outcomes for local workers is critically important, especially in the light of the fact that more than $110 million was spent on workforce development across 30 District agencies in 2010, according to new research from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

The way we use data to inform the way the District supports its residents is most definitely an immediate issue. The lasting impact of the Great Recession is still being felt, with some parts of the District suffering with unemployment rates above 25%. The good news is that over the past year, DC has made strides to strengthen its workforce development infrastructure. New leadership at the Department of Employment Services and the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development, the reinvigoration of the Workforce Investment Council, and the promise of the upcoming workforce intermediary position 2012 as a prime opportunity to make lasting improvements to benefit the District’s workers. Ensuring the effectiveness and sustainability of these new efforts, however, will require a renewed emphasis on and investment in, the District’s ability to use data to decide on priorities, track progress, and make improvements.

So is data interesting? It may depend on the audience and how the question is approached. The authors of the brief certainly think it is interesting. Workers who’ve lost their jobs and are hoping to build their skills to start a new career would certainly find great interest in data on what jobs are in demand locally. Employers who are hoping to hire District residents to fill critical jobs would certainly be interested in data on where to find highly qualified workers. District agencies, policymakers, and taxpayers in general would be interested in data to help ensure workforce development resources are being used in the most effective way. 

So, if data is important, immediate, and interesting, can we call it sexy? I’d wager to say many people would still say “no,” but will acknowledge that it warrants our attention regardless. The Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative is paying attention, and working to support efforts like this research brief to improve outcomes for our region’s workers. Sexy or not, in 2012, I invite us all to take a look and learn more about how we can support better practices in using data. For more information on the Collaborative, please contact us at 202-955-5890.


One Comment leave one →
  1. James Quinn permalink
    February 25, 2012 2:34 am

    Benton, very happy to read this. I think we may have similar ideas for how information can be transformational for the third sector in particular. That is, data drives our decisions, our work, and ultimately our ability to raise awareness and develop interventions to meet the needs of our communities. Now, the trick may be to convince others of this fundamental idea and institutionalize the data-driven aspects in daily operations.

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