Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Clown vs. The Liar

That’s how my almost 90-year-old mother characterized her 2016 Presidential voting options. After attaining voting age in 1948, she cast her first vote for Harry S. Truman. Knowing that she might not live until the 2020 election, she laments this year’s choices, feeling that she really does not have a choice.

Her words came to mind as I read statements recently by two African-American women of the millennial generation, one who described her decision about the major party candidates for President as the process of choosing between a racist and a liar, and the other who described the prospect of casting a vote in the upcoming election as the choice between “being stabbed and being shot.”

Those comments, from an old white woman and two young black women, illustrate the cynicism and frustration of voters. Surveys reveal that close to two-thirds of potential voters do not “trust” either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, disenchantment among Americans about their government runs deep. A 2015 analysis of surveys of the United States public by the Pew Research Center showed that, “Currently, just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run.”

Three ways to build

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to enable voters to feel that they have many good choices, and that they have sound information and understanding to make the best choice. To that end, three types of “building” seem worthwhile.

Build processes to inform the electorate. Provide individuals with the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. While the news media might like to focus on attention-grabbing topics such as Donald’s obsession with President Obama’s nativity, or Hillary’s characterization of her opponent’s supporters as “deplorables,” other issues of much more significance deserve intense consideration: child care; education; poverty; public safety; and the list goes on.

Voters deserve objective, understandable information on such issues. At Wilder Research we strive to provide this, by documenting and interpreting community trends through Minnesota Compass, for example, and by conducting research to shed light on which programs and policies actually work to improve the quality of life.

Build multi-partisan collaboration. Political parties serve a valuable purpose. However, if allegiance to a party (or to oneself) becomes overly rigid, partisanship becomes counterproductive. As one researcher who studies political polarization noted, problems arise not when political parties disagree, but when the disagreement devolves into “partisan warfare” in which “combatants question the motives, integrity, and patriotism of their opponents.” Unfortunately, we see a lot of that today – from both of the major parties.

We need leaders, from local to national levels, who have a commitment to fixing problems and to working with partners of all political persuasions, not just their own, to move our communities forward. At Wilder Research, we attempt to foster such collaboration by engaging people with varied perspectives in the design of our major initiatives. In that way, we build ownership across political lines to nurture jointly-crafted understanding and problem solving on significant community issues.

Build good leaders in all parties. Integrity and competence do not have just one party label. Regardless of our own political leanings, we should champion the development of skills among candidates in all parties and thus create a body of legislators who will engage in robust consideration of issues, just the way that the creators of our democracy intended, and then make decisions and move forward in a positive spirit of compromise. Many such elected public officials now sit in our executive and legislative branches; we need more of them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Senseless Killing, but Hope Exists

Philando Castile, driving with two passengers, including a four-year-old child, is shot during a police traffic stop. He dies. It’s senseless.

What can we do about this? How can we prevent it from happening again?

In 2013, when police in the United States committed 461 “justifiable homicides,” police officers in England and Wales killed exactly zero people. Do we in the United States have violent tendencies so much worse than residents of England, so that shooting us becomes necessary in order to maintain the peace?

In the Falcon Heights, Minnesota incident, the police officer seems like an upstanding community member, dedicated to helping others. He likely did not go to work expecting or intending to kill someone. Did sufficient information exist in that officer’s mind to justify a split-second decision to fire a gun at another human being? Whether or not the facts of this situation justified a killing by the police is not the most important question we need to answer. We could misguidedly expend a lot of energy addressing that question, but our efforts would not have long lasting value.

I can’t pretend to know everything we need to accomplish in order to move forward as a united community. However, as of now, I am fairly certain about three things we should do.

First, we should ask why our culture promotes the use of guns – by police and by civilians – for resolving conflicts. Why should the police ever shoot an unarmed person? If the Ferguson event happened in London, the police officer would most likely have waited for backup and then physically restrained the unarmed suspect. Here, we shoot people. Why? Can we change the accepted protocol?

Second, what really does happen in encounters between police and community residents? We should find out. We lack good information about this, although we hear many claims, some based on sound evidence, some not. Little research exists. Results may surprise us. For example, a very good recent study produced unexpected results: “A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police. But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.” We need the facts as a foundation for discussion, decisions, and action.

Third, the solution of problems related to race and violence will require us to engage in one-on-one respectful treatment of our fellow human beings, to overcome deeply embedded elements of our culture. As Melvin Carter, Executive Director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet recently wrote, we need to keep “our eyes and our hearts open to seeing one another’s humanity”.

A picture and related story in the Washington Post brought Melvin’s words to mind. Many observers expected riots in Cleveland. Instead, in at least one significant instance, they found a block party. Black Lives and Blue Lives joined one another. People with differing political views danced together. As one dancing Cleveland resident said, “Stop all the white against black, black against white. It’s all about love. This is what Cleveland is about. This is what the world should be about.”

I hope that, in the coming months, we identify a means for Wilder Research to address this issue and assist in moving our community forward. Our community needs to collaborate to build a common framework and take real action. In the meanwhile, we must acknowledge that we won’t achieve our dream of an equitable society unless and until we accept one another, interacting in genuine kinship with others who differ from us on the surface, but who underneath share the same dreams, the same desire to build a just world for themselves, their children, and for all human beings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Speaking for Ourselves" - Collaborative Research with, for, and about New Arrivals

All large communities experience the arrival of new people. Sometimes the newcomers arrive from nearby; sometimes they arrive from afar. Sometimes newcomers and longer-term residents have similar languages, customs, and cultures; other times, they differ, at least on the surface. The constant blending of people from different places constitutes a regular aspect of life in most parts of our globalized, modern world.

In Minnesota in the 2010s, the migration of people into the state is not just something that happens to occur. It’s something that needs to occur. In 2013, the Minnesota State Demographic Center indicated that “greater numbers of migrants, both domestic and international, will be necessary to meet our state’s workforce needs and to buttress economic activity.”

Here in Minnesota, we have the opportunity to welcome newcomers and to maintain a high quality of life for all residents, new and long-term. To accomplish that effectively requires that we learn what’s working for our new arrivals, along with what issues and challenges they face.

For that reason, Wilder Research carried out a major study – Speaking for Ourselves – to focus attention on foreign-born people who have settled in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. We wanted to learn about their lives – their families, education, jobs, health, and engagement in their communities.

The findings confirm some notions and challenge others. You can find easy-to-read summary reports on our website. For most topics, the research reveals a blend of positives and negatives. For example:

Health. About three-quarters of those who participated in the survey consider their health “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” However, these ratings fall slightly lower than the health self-ratings of other Minnesotans. Health care, employment assistance, housing, and food assistance were all identified as helpful resources. Yet lack of health insurance, cost of health care, and cost of insurance create barriers to obtaining needed health care – despite federal and state initiatives intended to make health care more accessible.

Education. Parental encouragement helps to keep children in school, and about three-quarters of survey participants feel “fully able” to provide a home environment good for studying. On the other hand, only about one-quarter feel “fully able” to help their children with homework in English. Nearly all believe their children will go to college, but about three-quarters consider financial issues a barrier to obtaining post-secondary education.

Connections to mainstream institutions. Almost all of the immigrants and refugees who participated in Speaking for Ourselves had heard about or visited a public library. However, large proportions had not heard about or visited some major cultural institutions, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota History Center, and the Minnesota Children’s Museum.

Civic and social participation. Survey respondents frequently offer assistance to neighbors, family, and friends. Yet, they tend not to volunteer their time in formal volunteer programs.

Those few findings illustrate the social assets existing among immigrants to our region; they also illustrate some of the challenges immigrants face. It is important to consider both the needs of these newcomers as well as the assets and resilience factors they possess, and to engage with these newcomers about their experiences and preferences, as we discuss and decide on programs and public policies to meet their needs.

A hopeful sign: organizations in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, as well as members of immigrant groups themselves, have begun to follow up on the study’s findings. Anna Bartholomay’s blog highlights some of this activity, as does one of the study reports. Cultural institutions who have had some successes in attracting visitors and recruiting volunteers from immigrant communities have embraced the study’s findings to formulate new plans of action to increase their appeal to, and relevance for, the region’s newest arrivals.

Our work on this study involved representatives of immigrant groups as partners, as well as representatives of some government and nonprofit organizations. This collaboration produced relevant and important findings useful for improving our quality of life in Minnesota, as well as useful for educating other communities around the world.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

HMIS: Using Data for Social Good

Who is homeless? What services do they receive? Who provides those services?

Vantage points for understanding homelessness differ greatly. Some members of our community have direct, personal understanding. They experience, or have experienced, life without a permanent place to live, or they work, day in day out, with or for homeless people. Other members of our community have little or no firsthand knowledge – developing an understanding based on occasional observations of homeless people or on news articles about the homeless population.

Similarly, HMIS – the Homeless Management Information System – is selectively known. People who deliver services to the homeless, and people who establish policies and funding for those services – they know HMIS very well. The general public, on the other hand, has never heard the acronym, although they might have read news reports based on HMIS data. In addition, they have unknowingly benefited from HMIS to the extent that the agencies which they support through tax dollars, or to which they make charitable contributions, can provide services more effectively and efficiently because of HMIS.

HMIS History

How did HMIS come to be? In 2001, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to collect better data on homelessness. HUD created a vision for HMIS using wisdom from communities who had already developed information systems to track services to homeless people. Locally, Wilder Research served as a pre-HMIS pioneer, establishing an emergency shelter database in Ramsey County under the leadership of Dr. Richard Chase in 1991. HUD mandated what data homeless service providers must collect in order to receive federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, the primary source of federal funding directed at homelessness. HUD provided limited technical assistance, and made limited funding available for competitive applications from communities.

Local networks of homelessness service providers, called Continuums of Care, had the obligation to implement sophisticated, internet-based data systems in order to continue to receive McKinney-Vento funding, which remains the federal government’s primary source of funding directed at homelessness.

We at Wilder Research moved forward, along with Minnesota Housing, to collaborate with the Continuums of Care and other stakeholders to create the vision and governance for the new system, select a technical vendor, and secure funding. Minnesota Housing, the Family Housing Fund, and the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund contributed funding. Data collection began in 2003, when Wilder Research assumed the authority of Lead Agency and System Administrator for Minnesota’s Homeless Management Information System.

Today, HMIS serves all 10 Continuums of Care in Minnesota – including over 800 end-users and 230 service providers-- tracking the volume and type of service use by homeless people within agencies, across agencies, and for the entire state. It is used for both federal and state reporting.

HMIS “Reaching Maturity”

In 2015, given the growth in size and cost of HMIS over a decade, we worked with others to analyze the system and develop a new plan. During the planning process, HUD advisors proposed that responsibilities for managing HMIS be split, with one organization focused on governance and another on administration. A decision was made that Wilder Research would continue in its role of system administrator; Minnesota Housing would take on governance and policy. We established the goal to issue an RFP in 2017 for a new system administrator.

These proposed changes, we hoped, would set Minnesota’s HMIS on a firm footing for the next decade.

In 2016, the 10 Continuums of Care decided to accelerate the organizational shift. So, in collaboration with HUD, the state of Minnesota, the Continuums of Care, and others, we are transferring our responsibilities to another organization.

Data for Social Good: Into the Future

We at Wilder Research are very proud of our legacy with HMIS. Creation of a data system, especially with many moving parts, always involves daunting challenges. I particularly want to acknowledge the Wilder Research staff who contributed so much to this effort. They care deeply about providing the highest-quality service, producing high-quality data, and ending homelessness.  

The service delivery system for homeless people in Minnesota has many facets. Establishing a high quality HMIS required strategic, political, and technical savvy which we contributed along with other stakeholders to make HMIS the valuable resource that it is today, providing data for social good.

(Interested in some research based on HMIS information? Take a look at these outcomes and return-on-investment reports.) 

(Interested in further reading about HMIS or Wilder Research’s triennial statewide survey of homeless people? Visit these sites: Minnesota's HMIS and Minnesota Homeless Study.)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Informed Public Decision Making

The Bern?
The Donald?
The Hill?
The Cruzinator?

Perhaps you have a favorite; perhaps you have not yet decided.

The once-every-four-years politics as circus has revved up in spring 2016, with the media sometimes more focused on topics like Hillary’s email indiscretions and Donald’s portrayal of Ted’s wife than on the issues of substance that we as voters should seriously ponder.

The who certainly has a lot of importance at all levels of government. We should select competent public officials. But, in the long term, the how has significant importance as well. How do we determine the best course of action for a city, a state, a nation? How – by what means – do we establish wise policies that will enhance the quality of life for everyone in the most equitable ways?

At Wilder Research, we focus on the long term, seeking to improve the means – the how – by which public officials and the general public can make the best choices. We shed light on what programs work. We seek to understand social and economic trends and how they influence the well-being of residents of our communities. We assist others to build their capacity to effectively implement programs and to make policy and funding decisions that will move community trends in a positive direction. All of those activities take time. They don’t happen overnight.

Sound public decision making requires measured, careful combining of values with evidence. We at Wilder Research seek to collaborate with community leaders of all types, bringing relevant, trustable, non-partisan evidence into their deliberations.

These examples demonstrate how we’ve informed decision making at local and state levels: 
  • As part of the Minnesota Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Collaborative, Wilder Research analyzed the impacts of parental incarceration upon young people and held forums to bring that information to the forefront. Now, state agencies use the research findings to educate the legislature. 
  • A Health Impact Assessment, done in collaboration with the Public Health Law Center, informed the revision of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Guide for Planning School Construction Projects. Historically, the guide has offered a compendium of design standards and state mandates for school districts doing new school construction or renovation. The HIA illuminated the many ways that school location and design can optimize student health. So far, at least one superintendent has used the HIA report to inform facility audits.
  • Our study of the return on investment in Supportive Housing demonstrated returns of $1.44 for every public dollar invested. Its very compelling findings have figured in multiple funding and legislative proposals. An additional study on this topic will come out soon. 
  • Minnesota Early Childhood Risk and Reach – in which we assembled, in partnership with the University of Minnesota and state agencies, key indicators of early childhood development in Minnesota – showed that Ramsey County is a high-risk county, resembling many greater Minnesota counties more than other metro counties. The project offers evidence that developmental risk levels will likely rise without concerted effort to rectify income and racial disparities. 
  • Regarding disparities, the disparities section on Minnesota Compass, along with other work at Wilder Research, has added to the rationale for the Governor’s recently-announced, $100 million dollar initiative to reverse racial disparities. 
  • Our research on the Safe Harbor Law and the No Wrong Door model raised awareness about sex trafficking in Minnesota. The Safe Harbor Law legally redefined prostituted Minnesota girls under 18 as crime victims. The study is now being used by government and non-profit agencies statewide to improve services and to educate and mobilize the public to end the prostitution of Minnesota girls. 
  • Our monitoring of mental health needs and patient flow through the health care system in the East Metro produced information used to support increased access to, and payment for, Crisis Stabilization Services, including the development of a mental health urgent care facility in Ramsey County; we expect further use of this ongoing study. 
  • Speaking for Ourselves, an innovative study of immigrants in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, carried out with representatives of those communities, has shed new light on mental health (policies that improve access to culturally appropriate behavioral health services), health (dedicating resources focused on healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco/alcohol/drugs for immigrant and refugee communities), education (improving access to culturally appropriate early childhood education, as well as a pipeline for immigrant and refugee students in the Twin Cities to receive teacher education so they can work in and diversify the Twin Cities teaching force). 
  • The State of the Infrastructure survey, in the field again this year for MnDOT and MN2050, examines whether asset management will most efficiently and effectively care for Minnesota’s infrastructure assets. 
In these efforts and more, we hope to enable public officials and other community leaders to apply the best possible knowledge to their decisions, to use data effectively, to learn from experience, and to continually grow in their ability to govern wisely. We don’t subscribe to a narrow partisan creed. You won’t find us collaborating with Super PACs or producing soundbites for shock value. We prize the strategy we pursue – seeking to provide compelling rationales and evidence for public decision making that benefits everyone.