Are City Efforts to Improve Child Outcomes Producing Results?

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City leaders are working harder than ever to improve the odds for children, youth and families.  They are increasingly leading initiatives to boost educational achievement, not only for students in K-12 public schools, but also for young children, out-of-school youth and those striving to complete a postsecondary education.  They are at the forefront of local efforts to develop citywide systems of high-quality afterschool programming.  They are leading the charge in the nation’s fight against childhood obesity.  And they are becoming ever more innovative in helping struggling families achieve a more financially secure future.

But is this burst of city-level activity and innovation actually leading to better outcomes?  And if so, how would cities measure their success?

While these questions cannot be answered in one blog post (sorry), city leaders who attend the 2013 National Summit on Your City’s Families will learn about new tools they can use to ensure their efforts are paying off.  In particular, NLC will introduce Summit participants to the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework, which offers a disciplined process for thinking about how to improve the well-being of children, youth and families in our nation’s cities.

One of the common challenges that cities, service providers and funders confront in holding themselves accountable for child and family well-being is the lack of a shared definition for what they seek to achieve.  Can success be measured by the number of youth served by a promising intervention?  Whether those youth are better off because of the intervention?  Whether local interventions are “moving the needle” on broader indicators of well-being for an entire cohort or age group, such as the high school graduation rate?

Cities from Hartford and Manchester, Conn., to Savannah, Ga., to Seattle, Wash. – as well as states such as Connecticut and Maryland and counties such as Prince William County, Va. – have already found value in the consistent language that RBA encourages for defining the ends they are trying to achieve and working backward systematically toward the means they will use to get there.  Recently, thanks to support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families began to incorporate RBA concepts into its technical assistance initiatives, including a new project funded by the Lumina Foundation to help cities boost local college completion rates.

Local leaders’ desire to adopt a “results-based” framework has become more feasible through advances in technology and more necessary because of tight budget constraints.  Just as municipal leadership for children and families has grown in exciting ways during the past decade, cities have made important strides in harnessing the power of data to foster accountability.  Mayors and other city leaders are setting big goals and tracking progress over time, developing public data dashboards and performance management scorecards, and launching the next generation of “Stat” programs to improve government performance.  Moreover, federal agencies and think tanks have compiled various online clearinghouse databases of evidence-based programs to demonstrate “what works” to improve outcomes for children and youth.

Yet, for many cities, the key missing link is a framework that brings together these accountability mechanisms into one coherent process and that is understandable to both experts and residents alike.  RBA is one tool that holds promise for helping local officials make those connections.

As city leaders continue searching for solutions to the complex challenges of poverty, unemployment, low achievement in school, youth violence, and poor health, NLC is committed to serving as a vital source of practical guidance.  Local officials and community partners who are looking for a new or better way to measure the return on their investment in children and family initiatives will find great value in the results focus of this year’s Summit, which takes place November 12-14 in Seattle, immediately before and in conjunction with the Congress of Cities.  We hope to see you there!