Thursday, March 21, 2013

Moving Past Our Fear of Data

Last week, I had the opportunity  to attend the National Youth Employment Coalition’s 2013 National Forum and while I learned an incredible amount, I did have one thought in particular that I thought might be worth sharing with the blog’s readership.(Shout out to other DC orgs, LAYC and See Forever Foundation who were also in attendance!)

The very first discussion session I went to at the forum was about data and not surprisingly this session drew quite a crowd. The discussion leaders, Susan Curnan from the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis (aka the people who evaluated SYEP a few years back), and Jennifer Brown Lerner from the American Youth Policy Forum who recently published a paper and did a briefing on using data for continuous program improvement asked everyone in the room to give examples of their best and worst experiences with data. Perhaps this would have been less shocking to direct service providers, but I was a little surprised to hear that so many organizations were struggling to collect and utilize meaningful data. This is not at all meant to be a knock on those who struggle with this, because data can obviously be quite tricky. However, I was genuinely struck by the number of practitioners in the room, some of whom represented organizations who have been doing youth development and youth employment work for a long time, who reported less than stellar past and ongoing experiences with data.

I look at best practice models from other cities a lot for DCAYA and resultantly sometimes I succumb to the “grass is always greener” mentality, so it was actually kind of refreshing to hear that other organizations in other cities struggle with a lot of what organizations in DC struggle with. That being said, as our discussion evolved over the course of the session, it became clear that maybe my envy of the way other cities deliver youth services was not totally unfounded. I say this because even though the organizations in the room knew data collection and evaluation were onerous and resource intensive and even though some of these organizations expressed feelings of nervousness, anxiety and even outright fear about data, they still all seemed to place an incredibly high value on it and its role in improving youth outcomes.

We all know that DC has a number of organizations and agencies that want to help young people, but are not currently realizing their full potential because they are not collecting data at all or because they aren’t using the information they do collect in a way that helps them achieve their intended outcomes. Sometimes this is due to lack of resources, but other times its because organizations/agencies fear the repercussions of collecting information that is less than flattering. This is especially true when the repercussions could mean decreased funding.

I get why this is scary, I really do. I fully understand that resources for young people in this city are scarce and that so many organizations are struggling right now to stay afloat. I understand that service providers are often stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decision to reach as many young people as possible with at least some services rather than provide intensive services to just a handful. I get the argument that if we’re spending money on things like data collection and outside evaluation that means we’re spending less money on providing services to young people. However, I cannot agree with that argument because at the end of the day if the services we are providing aren't quality ones and we cannot prove or measure that quality, then we are failing our young people.

This point seems to be something DC is a little behind on. That doesn't mean we can’t start to make up some ground though. I find it unlikely, that frequent readers of Youth-Friendly DC will be shocked to find out that I think the primary place we should be focusing our attention is the Department of Employment Services, specifically the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The lack of data from a program that serves upwards of 12,000 youth every year will never cease to amaze me, but there are of course other places we can look for improvement. Think of the programs at your organization, whether you’re an Executive Director, front line staff or even a volunteer. What data are you collecting and is that the right data to collect to ensure your organization is meeting its goals? Is the information you collect just satisfying a grant or contract or is it actually supporting your mission? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they are necessary ones for the entire youth serving community to ask if we ever want to make true progress towards being a city that values quality.

This blogpost was written by DCAYA policy analyst Anne Abbott. A copy of the new AYPF report Beyond the Numbers: Data Use for Continuous Improvement of Programs Serving Disconnected Youth is available here.

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