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Quality care for veterans: Can the nonprofit sector save the day?

Author: Henry Smart

| Posted: July 21st, 2014

 

 

VAvet

If you’ve been following the news, it’s no surprise that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is struggling to provide adequate services and care. Lawmakers are considering the creation of a commission to evaluate the VHA’s actions, but the Office of the Inspector General already serves that purpose. Instead of adding another layer of bureaucracy, lawmakers should consider expanding patient advocacy.

Currently, each Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital has at least one patient advocate (PA) on staff. PAs work with veterans and their families to assist them with navigating the VA healthcare system, from scheduling appointments to clarifying and resolving issues related to patient rights.

But the VA lacks the capacity to properly execute its current Patient Advocacy Program, and PAs are overworked, responsible for unmanageably large caseloads. These and other challenges have led to the inability of the current system to provide timely health care, which has consequences for veterans and the VHA.

Studies show that waiting for an initial health screening could further complicate existing health issues and increase the number of preventable hospitalizations, and missed opportunities for early detection and delayed treatment may accelerate the deterioration of a veteran’s health. And in the long run, improving access to health care could lead to a better quality of life for many veterans and ultimately reduce medical costs for the federal government.   

Outsourcing PA work: Potential benefits

  • The VA could strengthen its capacity to provide quality care to veterans and achieve its quality standards
  • The VA could identify and resolve problems before they escalate
  • Each veteran could receive the support they need to successfully maneuver the VHA system

So why NPOs? Here’s why I think they could get the job done:

  • They’re currently assisting military veterans.   According to Urban’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are over 40,000 NPOs throughout the United States dedicated to veteran affairs. The VA currently contracts with NPOs to provide hospice care, adult day care, case management, nursing home services, transitional housing services, homeless housing services, substance abuse treatment, injury rehabilitation, and counseling services.
  • They’re an untapped mine of transferrable skills. The aforementioned services are difficult to provide without rendering some form of advocacy for the client/patient, so more than likely, NPOs are already advocating on behalf of the veterans they serve. For example, it’s probably safe to assume that a program coordinator at a homeless shelter will know how to advocate for veteran services that are beyond the program scope of the shelter.
  • They’re an integral part of the communities where veterans live. The problems that lead to poor wait times occur at the VA hospital level. Since most NPOs are a part of the fabric of communities served by VA hospitals, NPOs are not only familiar with the population, but they are properly situated to provide support.

So how can we integrate NPO services into the VA system? I would suggest somewhat of a hybrid of the “one stop” model used by the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York, which provides streamlined social and health services for veterans, and the “one stop” model used by the Department of Labor to provide career services in various cities.

Increasing the VA’s capacity to provide each veteran with a single point of contact in a PA has the potential to improve the interaction between veterans and the VHA, and the potential to positively impact health outcomes.

Photo: Travis Fugate, a member of the Kentucky National Guard who was blinded by an IED attack in Iraq, wipes his eyes as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 29, 2014, before the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations. The panel is examining inadequacies in the Veterans Administration's treatment of visually-impaired veterans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Filed under: Aging, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Health and Health Policy, Health care delivery and payment, Vulnerable populations |Tags: , , , , , ,
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Social impact bonds: Solving government problems in four (not so) easy steps

Author: John Roman

| Posted: July 18th, 2014

 

 

0718blog

At the cutting edge of new social innovation financing are social impact bonds (SIBs), a potentially transformative idea. SIB transactions merge traditional public/private partnerships and performance based contracting. Private investors invest in demonstrated social programs, with a promise from government to repay that investment, plus a profit, if predetermined performance targets are met.

The deals transfer risk from the government to the private sector and generate new capital to invest in evidence-based interventions that would otherwise go unfunded.

But on their current path, they are unlikely to fully achieve their promise. Today's deals are bespoke, complex, and have large transactional costs. They also replicate current mistakes in how government purchases services, rather than reforming that process.

Today's deals are mainly efforts to fund well-intentioned programs that are appealing to all parties to the transaction: the government, investors, and social service providers. But in order to satisfy the interests of all parties whose incentives are not aligned, rather than creating real reform, they end up funding the lowest common denominator— something that sounds good, is low risk, but does not solve big problems.

There is a better way to use these transactions to create broader and deeper systems reform, using the SIB development process as the mechanism for reform.

The deals funded by social innovation financing should be the product of a real, intensive strategic planning process, rather than a one-off response to a particular opportunity.

Step one should be an effort to understand what drives the most frustrating costs to government: individuals, families, and places that cycle endlessly through our systems.

Who are these “frequent flyers” who continually touch many systems and generate disproportionately high expenses for taxpayers? Examples include:

  • Kids involved in juvenile justice, child welfare, and special education.
  • Adults who are chronically homeless, mentally ill, and returning from prison.
  • City blocks that the police, fire, and public works spend all their time patrolling.

Step two is to determine why government is ineffective in treating these frequent flyers. The answer is deceptively simple: government knows what it spends, but not what it buys. That is, we know what is in the budget, but in today’s system, we don’t know what outcomes that spending produces. The current procurement process creates no incentives to prioritize outcomes over outputs. A SIB requires that the outcomes are explicit.

Step three is to determine if there are evidence-based interventions that would alleviate the problem. It’s important to remember that not every significant problem has an evidence-based solution. Today, research evidence is generally constrained to a single problem, such as the effectiveness of drug treatment. There is much less evidence around broad social phenomena, like increasing high school completion. Care is thus warranted in prioritizing interventions for SIB funding.

For the final step, a clear-eyed decision must be made about whether SIBs are the right financing mechanism. It should be noted that SIBs are not the answer to every undercapitalized intervention. For example, some frequent flyer populations are so small that a reasonable comparison group cannot be found, and thus it is impossible to determine if outcome targets were met.

The social innovation field is currently in an evolutionary stage, with a focus on building a SIB-ready sector, which simply means educating and experimenting across all parties involved in these transactions.

In order to get to a stage where these innovations are scaled and serve high proportions of targeted populations, a much more strategic approach is required.

And that process is worth doing, even if no SIB is ever financed. The simple process of government articulating what its problems are, what its goals are, and what the potential solutions could be would be a tremendously positive reform in its own right.

Photo: Steve Pepple / Shutterstock.com

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Children, Children's health and development, Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Delinquency and crime, Economic well-being, Families, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Social impact |Tags: , , , ,
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Is student debt hindering homeownership?

Author: Maia Woluchem and Taz George

| Posted: July 17th, 2014

Since 2004, student loan debt has tripled to $1.1 trillion, surpassing both outstanding auto and credit card debt. Many have sought to connect the dots between the rise in student debt and the five percent decline in homeownership, but research presented this week at the Urban Institute raises questions about the evidence.

Debt1

While there is some indication of a possible link, it’s not nearly strong enough to fuel a narrative casting debt-ridden graduates as a significant economic burden, permanently lowering the homeownership rate.

Regardless of the evidence, we still need to monitor student debt’s effects to the best of our ability, given its outsized role in household balance sheets, said Meta Brown of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In previous years, borrowers with student loans were associated with better credit profiles and higher homeownership rates among young households relative to their student debt-free counterparts. Now, the relationship is less clear, and those with student debt are slightly less likely to hold home-secured debt (a proxy for homeownership). Holders of student loan debt also have worse credit scores, meaning it could be more difficult for them to qualify for a loan, find housing, and obtain a credit card.

Debt2

If student debt really is hurting homeownership, the panelists agreed that certain types of students are bearing the bulk of the damage. Research presented by Jeffrey Thompson of the Federal Reserve Board found a connection between student debt and lower homeownership almost entirely attributable to students that took out loans but did not successfully attain a degree.

Other factors besides student debt are more certainly at play in driving down the homeownership rate, such as changing interest in homeownership and the broader issue of restricted credit availability. Notably, the homeownership rate has declined steeply for 27-30 olds both with and without student debt. Many of these young potential homeowners have been locked out of the housing market at an opportune time to buy a home due to their inability to meet the debt-to-income ratios required in this tight lending environment. Others have been stymied by low credit scores, which hamper their ability to secure loans for a home. Others still may have decided that homeownership is not the best financial decision at this point.

Sandy Baum of Urban’s Income and Benefits Policy Center also critiqued the notion that student loan debt is weighting down the  homeownership rate. She notes many student debt measures are flawed because of weak data and questionable assumptions about borrowing patterns.  And from the perspective of students planning on taking out loans to continue their education, what is the alternative? Forgoing college is rarely the best long-term financial decision, demonstrated by the well-established earnings gap between those with and without a college degree. Moreover, a large proportion of the borrowers with more than $40,000 in student loan debt have borrowed for graduate or professional school, raising long-run earning power even higher.

The mainstream discourse often ignores the nuances surrounding the issue of growing student debt and it’s linked to financial hardship and broader economic woes, suggested Beth Akers from Brookings Institution. As student loans comprise an increasingly large share of total household debt, expect the conversation to continue.

Correction: The original version of this post mislabeled the series in the second chart. The chart plots only 30-year-olds with home-secured debt, broken out by those who did and did not have student loan debt at any time between ages 27 and 30. We originally implied that it showed homeowners between ages 27 and 30. Our apologies.

Filed under: Credit availability, Economic Growth and Productivity, Education and Training, Employment and education, Higher education, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing Finance Policy Center, Labor force, Tracking the economy |Tags: , , , ,
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Is residual income the key to the superior performance of VA loans?

Author: Laurie Goodman and Ellen Seidman and Jun Zhu

| Posted: July 16th, 2014

Default rates on loans guaranteed by Veterans Affairs (VA) are consistently lower than on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). For loans originated in 2007, the worst origination year, 36 percent of FHA loans have experienced at least one delinquency of 90 days or more, compared with only 16 percent of VA loans, as shown in the figure. These differences persist; for 2012 origination, the 2.3 percent FHA default rate was 64 percent higher than the VA’s 1.3 percent default rate.

Va1

While FHA and VA borrowers spend roughly the same percentage of their income on their mortgage payments, FHA borrowers have lower incomes and lower credit scores. When controlling for income and credit score, VA borrowers still have considerably lower default rates. For 2008 loans, for example, the default rate for FHA loans was 26.1 percent compared with just 11.6 percent for VA loans. But even if we apply VA borrower characteristics to FHA borrowers, the FHA default rate for 2008 loans would still have been 20.1 percent.

Why does the difference persist over time? In a commentary posted today, we looked at some possible explanations:

  • Military culture – Could military culture or special incentives not to default, such as potential loss of a security clearance, cause a significant difference? Evidence is weak to support this theory and in 2013, only 17 percent  of VA borrowers were on active duty when they took out their loan.
  • Direct contact – The VA has a statutory requirement to service its borrowers and contact them directly. FHA does not engage in direct contact; the servicer contacts the borrower. As a result, the VA intervenes at an earlier point in a more uniform manner. While this might improve the likelihood that a delinquent loan reperforms, often referred to as the cure rate (it actually doesn't seem to), it is unlikely to explain the difference in the substantially higher rate at which FHA loans go 90 days delinquent.
  • Skin in the game – Unlike the FHA’s 100 percent insurance, VA lenders remain on the hook for losses after the VA’s limited guaranty is exhausted. As a result, VA loans tend to be concentrated in lenders who are familiar with the VA’s special underwriting and servicing systems. We hope to explore FHA and VA default rates for lenders who originate both types of loans.
  • Residual income test -- While the VA’s uses a residual income test and debt-to-income (DTI) guidelines to assess a borrower’s ability to pay, the FHA and conventional lenders rely exclusively on DTI. The residual income test measures whether a borrower will have enough money left after paying their mortgage and related expenses each month to meet unanticipated expenses. Although the expense side of the VA’s test has not been updated for years, and therefore probably understates the residual income a family actually needs, it works. For 2008 originations by borrowers with incomes under $50,000, the VA default rate was about 60 percent of the FHA default rate.

While adding a residual income test may cause some families to rethink or delay a home purchase or purchase a less expensive house, it also appears to be an effective way to reduce default rates and ensure borrowers take out mortgages they can afford. FHA and conventional programs should consider adding residual income to their underwriting. Moreover, lenders making higher cost Qualified Mortgages may want to consider using a residual income screen to provide more certainty that their borrowers can truly repay the loan.

Filed under: Agency securitization, Credit availability, Economic Growth and Productivity, Federal programs and policies, GSE reform, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing and the economy, Housing finance, Housing Finance Policy Center, Tracking the economy |Tags: , , , , , ,
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How evidence-based strategies can spur successful correctional reform

Author: Nicole Levins

| Posted: July 16th, 2014

LaVigne

When it comes to correctional reform, the federal government could learn a thing or two from the states, according to Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

At yesterday’s convening of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigation, La Vigne outlined successful, evidence-based strategies adopted by the 17 states involved in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), and how these lessons could apply at the federal level.

“Many JRI states have slowed prison growth, reduced overcrowding, and saved taxpayers money without sacrificing public safety,” La Vigne testified. “The crime rate in almost all of the states that have reduced their prison populations continued to decline.”

But while “the state incarceration rate has remained largely constant for the past decade… the federal incarceration rate has grown by over a third,” she explained in her testimony. And with its current population exceeding 216,000 and projected to grow for the foreseeable future, the federal government will have to continue to allocate resources to the Bureau of Prisons at the expense of other public safety priorities.

So how have some states managed to reduce recidivism and stem the tide of unsustainable, expensive prison growth? Much of their success can be attributed to the adoption of proven strategies and evidence-based policy.

“Every decision we make will be a decision that research indicates is likely to have the best outcome,” said John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “And if you sprinkle that throughout the whole system, starting at the front end, then you can’t go wrong.”

Texas has adopted a similar approach. “We asked what programs were working, and we asked for actual data that showed their successes,” testified Jerry Madden, senior fellow for Right on Crime and former chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee.

So what does work? Based on the research, La Vigne concluded that a combination of front-end (sentencing and intake) and back-end (release and reentry) policies are necessary for both short- and long-term reductions in federal prison growth.

Specific evidence-based strategies include:

  • Sentence reductions and earned  time off for program participation and good conduct behind bars
  • Reductions to mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders
  • Risk and needs assessments to determine what programs and treatment will best reduce an individual’s likelihood of offending

What doesn’t work: the status quo. Even with its prisons at 192 percent capacity, Alabama still has the nation’s eighth-highest crime rate, said State Senator Cam Ward. “That tells us one thing: Locking them up and throwing away the key is not the solution to our problem.”

Photo of Nancy La Vigne by Christina Baird, Urban Institute.

Filed under: AL, Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention, TX |Tags: , , , ,
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How our safety net does - and does not - protect children when parents lose their jobs

Author: Olivia Healy

| Posted: July 16th, 2014

I hardly need empirical support (though plenty exists) to claim that children in low-income families suffer when their parents lose their jobs. Since money was tight before the job loss, public supports for these families are critical to help offset losses in family income and reduce the risk that job loss will hurt children’s healthy development. So, does our safety net meet that need?

You’d perhaps think that unemployment insurance would save the day, but only about a third of children living with an unemployed parent receive UI benefits. Coverage rates tend to be low because many workers assume they are ineligible for the program, while others fail to meet non-monetary eligibility requirements that disproportionately affect low-wage workers.

Worse, only about a quarter of low-income children with an unemployed parent received unemployment insurance benefits in 2012, while 41 percent of children with higher-income unemployed parents did. So, how do newly unemployed, lower-income families get by?

As it turns out, many of them turn to nutrition assistance programs. More than half of children with low-income, unemployed parents relied on food stamps and almost two-thirds lived in families participating in the National School Lunch Program.

Safetynet

Why nutrition assistance programs and not cash assistance? In part, because cash assistance has become much more restrictive since welfare reform. Despite the sharp increase in parental unemployment and child poverty during the Great Recession, caseloads for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families did not expand much. This meant that very low-income families who failed to qualify for unemployment insurance were less able to rely on cash assistance.

On the other hand, the earned income tax credit (EITC) provides a great deal of support to low-income families, covering more than three-fourths of low-income children with unemployed parents (based on earnings before unemployment or from another parent). However, the EITC is primarily targeted to working parents. And parents don’t receive benefits until the tax season after they experience unemployment. This amounts to a one-time benefit, making it less effective at cushioning families against temporary losses in income when they occur.

To be clear, our safety net provides critical support for millions of families. But too many families with the most acute need are slipping through the cracks. This is a particularly serious problem given what we now know about how important it is for children to have economically and emotionally stable environments. Reforming our unemployment and cash assistance programs to improve access and coverage for those who most need it could help families become self-sufficient more quickly and promote children’s healthy development.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, Child care, Child welfare, Children, Children's health and development, Disability Insurance, Earned income tax credits, Economic well-being, Employment and income data, Hunger and food assistance, Job Market and Labor Force, Low-income working families, Poverty, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net, Refundable tax credits, Social Security, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Nutrition–Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment, Unemployment insurance, Welfare and safety net programs |Tags: , , , , , ,
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Senate GSE reform: What we learned from Johnson-Crapo

Author: Laurie Goodman and Jim Parrott and Ellen Seidman

| Posted: July 15th, 2014

 

capitol

On May 15, 2014, the Senate Banking Committee passed S.1217, the Housing Finance Reform Act of 2013, more commonly known as Johnson-Crapo. While the bill passed out of committee with relatively broad bipartisan support, barring a late summer surprise it does not have the support needed for a vote on the Senate floor. The many months long effort was nonetheless an important step in the effort to reform the housing finance system, revealing a growing consensus on a number of critical issues and shedding light on the difficulties that remain.

We are among the many who have worked hard over the past several years to move housing finance reform forward, though from different positions and with different perspectives.  The current pause gave us an opportunity to reflect on what happened in the Senate, why it happened and what the next steps look like.  Work on Johnson-Crapo (as well as its predecessor Corker-Warner) was time well spent, providing lessons from which future reform efforts will undoubtedly benefit.

In our commentary , we focus on a range of issues critical both to the negotiations and to how the future system will function, with particular attention to credit access for historically underserved borrowers and communities—the issue that proved most challenging in the negotiations.

Although Johnson-Crapo contained a market-based incentive intended to ensure that the future system would serve these borrowers and communities well, some of the more progressive members of the Senate Banking Committee were skeptical that it would succeed. They were also uneasy with the impact that increased risk-based pricing and higher capital requirements likely under the bill would have on the cost of borrowing. At the end of the day, it became impossible to both meet progressive concerns and retain the bill’s bipartisan support.

Yet the Committee reached consensus on many other significant issues that we discuss at length in our dialogue. Indeed, with this increase in consensus there is  hope that the next legislative run will face better odds, as the parties will be able to focus on the small number, though thorny, set of questions that remain.  Meanwhile, there are many opportunities for administrative action to improve on the current system, a process the FHFA has already begun.

For an in-depth discussion of all of these issues and more, see here.

Photo from Shutterstock.

Filed under: Agency securitization, Federal programs and policies, GSE reform, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing finance, Housing Finance Policy Center |Tags: , , , ,
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Fighting forced marriage in the United States

Author: Darakshan Raja

| Posted: July 14th, 2014

 

0714blogHonor

Amina Ajmal, an American citizen, was held in captivity for years and forced into a marriage by her own relatives in Pakistan. She escaped and found refuge in an American embassy. As Ajmal was flown home to Brooklyn, her father, Mohammad Ajmal Choudhry, ordered the murder of those who helped her escape. Earlier this month, Choudhry was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country.

In addition to illustrating the violence and barriers victims of forced marriage face when they seek safety and justice, the case shows how victims of forced marriage can utilize the justice system to hold perpetrators accountable, even when crimes occur across borders. But too often, these cases are never reported to law enforcement or service providers—or, when they are brought to their attention, the authorities neglect to identify the cases as forced marriage.

While there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a forced marriage in the United States, the Tahirih Justice Center defines it as one that takes place “without the full and free consent of one or both parties.” Though awareness of forced marriage isn’t particularly widespread in the United States, progress is being made and strategies for identifying and tackling forced marriage cases are beginning to crystalize across the country. Here is some of what we know so far:

  • Forced marriage is often conflated with arranged marriage—a cultural and traditional practice. An arranged marriage isn’t always a forced marriage, and law enforcement and service providers may mistakenly view forced marriage as a cultural issue not worth a response. Even victims of a forced marriage may label their experience as an arranged marriage because they aren’t aware of the language and framework to use to draw a distinction between the two.
  • When direct services providers encounter forced marriage cases, they may not have the right tools to identify it and respond. The Tahirih Justice Center surveyed more than 500 agencies, who reported encountering 3,000 suspected and confirmed forced marriage cases. However, 67 percent of services providers reported forced marriage cases weren’t being properly identified in their caseload, so the number is likely much higher.
  • Forced marriage victims may face multiple forms of violence. My colleague Vidya Sri and I conducted a study of more than 500 students and direct services providers , and found that victims of forced marriage were subjected to multiple forms of abuse, including emotional violence (e.g., coercion and intimidation), domestic violence (e.g., sibling abuse, intimate partner violence, in-law violence), financial and economic abuse, sexual violence, immigration threats and fraud, isolation and false imprisonment, overseas abandonment, and in some cases, murder.
  • Victims may experience negative mental health and physical health consequences, and may require a broad array of services. According to a review of 52 suspected and confirmed forced marriage cases, victims asked for counseling, advocacy, self-help groups, shelter, law enforcement assistance, and legal services (e.g., immigration, civil, criminal). Those who knew of someone who was threatened with or in a forced marriage stated the victim experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and alcohol dependence, and in some cases, committed suicide.

As awareness of forced marriage grows, the federal government is starting to pay attention. The Urban Institute, in collaboration with the Tahirih Justice Center and with an advisory board comprised of community agencies, is researching the intersection between forced marriage, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence among young South Asian women and men in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The Department of Justice-funded study will include interviews with people who have been threatened with or subjected to a forced marriage, as well as those who have watched a friend or loved one go through the experience. These voices of survivors and stakeholders will be used to develop a training manual for justice systems, educational institutions, and service providers on how to effectively respond to and prevent forced marriages.

Image from AP/STR. Pakistani women take part in a rally to condemn honor killings and victimization of women in society in Lahore Pakistan on Tuesday, Aug 10, 2004. 

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Crime and Justice, Delinquency and crime, Families, Family violence, Father involvement, Human trafficking, Immigrants and Immigration, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention, Victims of crime |Tags: , , , ,
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Why government data sites are so hard to use

Author: Jon Schwabish

| Posted: July 14th, 2014

 

0711blog

A couple of weeks ago over at FlowingData, Nathan Yau wrote a post about how to improve government data sites. The post was mostly a constructive critique of the difficulties users have extracting and using data provided by the federal government. (Surely state and local governments create similarly poor interfaces). It’s not that I disagree with Nathan, but I think it’s worth digging a little deeper into why government web sites and data sets aren’t particularly user-friendly.

Having worked at a government agency for nearly a decade and spoken to countless agencies about data visualization, presentation techniques, and technology challenges over the past few years, I thought I might add my own perspective.

In his post, Nathan suggests three reasons why government data sites are inexcusably poor:

Maybe the people in charge of these sites just don't know what's going on. Or maybe they're so overwhelmed by suck that they don't know where to start. Or they're unknowingly infected by the that-is-how-we've-always-done-it bug.

In my experience, government web sites aren’t difficult to use or extract data from because government workers don’t “know what’s going on” or are “overwhelmed by suck.” The real answer is probably closer to the “that-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it bug”—but even that simplifies a more complicated story.

Let’s say for the moment that you work at a large government agency and your job is to process a large household survey and make it available to the public (think, say, the Census Bureau). Up until the past couple of years or so, your target audience was other government workers, academics, and researchers in similar fields. And most of those analysts use tools similar to the ones you’re using: Stata, SAS, SPSS, MATLAB, maybe a little Fortran or C++. So what do you do? You create a data file so that they can download it, unpack it, and analyze it using those programming languages. Your primary audience is not journalists (data-driven journalism had not yet taken off) or bloggers (in-depth data blogging was just beginning) or data scientists (the term didn’t even exist).

Now, however, with the Open Data movement, interest in and demand for Big Data, expanded open source programming languages and tools, and the general explosion of DATA EVERYWHERE, everyone is clamoring for more of your government data. So the mandate has changed. And you, as the government worker who has for so long processed this survey the same way, now are being asked to provide that data in a variety of formats. You’re not familiar with those different file formats or tools, so you ask about training or maybe even hiring some additional staff. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen. Demand for more (or better) data has not translated into more funds to train existing staff or hire new staff. For example, between fiscal years 2011 and 2013, the overall budget appropriation for the Census Bureau fell from $1.2 billion to $859.3 million, a decline of over 25 percent. (It’s hard to tell, but that may actually be an overstatement of the decrease, if there were still some extra funds in the 2011 appropriation to process the 2010 decennial census.) At the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the producer of the National Income and Product Accounts, total appropriations fell by a smaller amount: from $93 million in 2011 to $89.8 million in 2013.

I don’t believe that government agencies can’t or don’t want to make their data more accessible or are so overwhelmed by the technology that they’re unable to come up with solutions. Instead, I think many agencies have yet to adjust to a world that demands data, and demands that it be easily accessible at all times. It’s going to take time, money, and training for the government to catch up.

Filed under: Economic Growth and Productivity, Income and Benefits Policy Center, Monetary policy and the Federal Reserve, Tracking the economy |Tags: , , , , , ,
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