Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and You

22 Feb 2013 | Michael McAfee, Adam Luecking
Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and You
Above: Bill Gates and Barack Obama both encourage a focus on measurement and data to solve problems

Bill Gates and Barack Obama have the right idea.

Gates’ recent essay in the Wall Street JournalMy Plan to Fix the World’s Greatest Problems, highlights the need to set clear goals, use measures to drive progress, and analyze results in a feedback loop.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama introduced a College Scorecard to help students choose colleges based on information related to size, cost, location, graduation rate, employment, and how many students are able to repay student loans after graduation. This scorecard was part of an overall emphasis in his speech on early education-to-career support for children to gain the skills necessary to get good jobs and climb a ladder of opportunity into the middle class.

Both Gates and President Obama are focusing on measurement and data in order to help children and families in distressed neighborhoods succeed. This is exactly the focus of Mark Friedman’s book, Trying Hard is Not Good Enough: How to Produce Measurable Improvements for Customers and Communities—the focus we maintain in our work to support Promise Neighborhoods.

The most effective way to get population-level results is to use Results-Based Accountability (RBA) to create measurable impact on community indicators like obesity rates, high school graduation rates, median incomes, and the air quality index—and we’ve got a scorecard of our own to help Promise Neighborhoods serve the children and families in their communities.

Promise Neighborhoods, which build a continuum of education, health, and social supports from the cradle to college to career, were created by President Obama in 2010 in order to replicate the successful model of the Harlem Children’s Zone. They work on common indicators to achieve a shared set of results, and use our Promise Scorecard to rigorously measure data, assess progress, and continuously improve and connect services to help children succeed.

Across the country, over 60 Promise Neighborhoods are scaling up to serve over 200,000 children. Because their efforts address the interconnected challenges of poverty, this movement has the ability to reverse the cycle of generational poverty, ultimately creating an equitable society in which all children can learn, participate, and prosper.

This methodology is applicable in many different fields. As Bill Gates notes, “from the fight against polio to fixing education, what’s missing is often good measurement and a commitment to follow the data. We can do better. We have the tools at hand.”

No matter what change you want to see in the world, you can use data for learning, continuous improvement, and shared accountability to achieve real results. To start, here are seven simple questions to ask yourself, courtesy of Mark Friedman:

  1. Results: What are the quality of life conditions we want for the children, adults, and families who live in our community?
  2. Experience:  What would these conditions look like if we could see, feel, and experience them?
  3. Indicators:  How can we measure these conditions?
  4. Trendline:  How are we doing on the most important of these measures?
  5. Partners: Who are the partners that have a role to play in doing better?
  6. What Works:  What works, and what would it take to do better? What low-cost or no-cost actions could we take?
  7. Action Plan:  What do we propose to do?

Measurement and data analysis are critical to building successful Promise Neighborhoods and other comprehensive community change efforts, though they’re not useful in a vacuum. We also need supportive public policies, sufficient funding, and targeted technical assistance to allow measurement and data-informed action. With the leadership of Bill Gates, President Obama, and other public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders at the national and local levels to support the necessary tools and training, our neighborhoods can make and keep their promises to children. Let’s remain focused so that all children can grow up in a society in which they can participate and prosper.

Michael McAfee is Director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink. Adam Luecking is CEO of the Results Leadership Group, creators of the Results Scorecard software. He is also past president of the Community Indicators Consortium, an international non-profit focused on helping local communities use better data in decision-making.