With data, cities max ARP spending plans

November 3, 2021

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) provides local government leaders more than $67 billion to make their communities economically resilient by investing in resources to fix old problems and create new and innovative solutions to advance economic sustainability. While having an influx of money is a good thing, it’s a tremendous challenge for leaders to quickly and effectively direct those funds to programs aimed at tackling some of society’s thorniest issues.

The U.S. Department of Treasury is encouraging governments to use data and evidence to drive their ARP policymaking and to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs in lifting up disadvantaged communities. This puts cities that already have data capacity at a distinct advantage. “They’re a step ahead,” said Zachary Markovits, managing director of What Works Cities, an initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies aimed at helping cities use data to better serve residents. “Places that have really spent the time building out the processes and practices to do this work thoughtfully...they can lean on that.”

In fact, a recent survey of What Works Cities members found that 70 percent are systematically using data-informed decision-making to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Bloomberg Cities checked in with a number of these cities to identify four main ways that having solid data capacity in place is helping governments deploy their new federal funds effectively.

[Read: How to use federal aid to bolster City Hall’s innovation capacity]

Making sense of community input

The ARP encourages governments to engage residents in deciding how to spend their federal funding and in fact, many governments are doing that through surveys, forums, and other means. The result is a treasure trove of information for officials about what their residents' struggles and priorities are. But what it doesn’t help with is deciding which priorities are the best candidates for ARP dollars and advancing equity.

That’s where having a data team really comes in handy. They can check those priorities against their already-established matrix of what will deliver the best results for the most people. For example, Slow Streets initiatives were popular during the pandemic as a way of providing more open space. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco are using ARP funds to make many of them permanent based on whether they will provide more recreational space in under-served areas.

[Read: 4 Keys to maintaining momentum for COVID-era innovations like ‘Slow Streets’]

Quickly developing a robust plan

When the ARP was passed in March of 2021, cities that had already been using data to track the effectiveness of programs and their impact on equity were able to quickly see where federal funding could support those initiatives. For example, Long Beach, Calif. established its office of equity three years before the pandemic to employ a user-centered and data-driven approach to creating policies that advance equity. The city was able to pass its recovery plan less than a week after President Biden signed the federal act. In April, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock announced the Rebuilding for an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy plan, or RISE Denver, which focuses investments around five strategic areas to provide relief for businesses, workers and communities that have been hit the hardest.

In Madison, Wisconsin, ARP funds are supporting the city’s Race to Equity project that was launched in 2012. The project’s goal is to reduce racial disparities by tracking measures that are most predictive of good or bad life outcomes and developing and evaluating programmatic solutions. “When we knew what our allocation was going to be, we already had a structure set up that I could go to and say, okay, what's the top of the list? What are the most important things? What are the data telling us? And let's do that,” said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway during a Results for America panel in September.

[Get answers to your COVID-19 federal funding questions here]

Getting to the root of an issue

Cities using data to inform their policymaking decisions are already using ARP funds for programs to tackle some of the root causes and conditions of inequity. Pueblo, Colo., for example, implemented a summer reading challenge supported by $1 million in federal funds. “The evidence is already out there that reading helps combat learning loss,” said Laura Solano, chief of staff to Mayor Nick Gradisar. “This was a quick way we could start to target that.” The program awarded kids $100 after checking out 10 items from the library and providing a response about each item borrowed. More than 7,400 kids completed the program, new library card issuance increased by 66 percent, and the city is continuing to track library card use and other metrics by ZIP Code.

In Buffalo, N.Y., officials are targeting the region’s chronically high unemployment rate with a $20 million wraparound services program for residents seeking job training. “What data and our experience shows is that you need money in order to get a job,” said Robert Mayer, director of policy and the lead author of Buffalo’s recovery plan. “Even as our economy was shifting out of lockdown mode, those residents like school bus drivers or waitresses who were looking for another [job] didn’t have the capital resources to make that transition.” The program gives $500 per month to enrollees in training programs to help defray the costs of child care, transportation, clothing, medical costs or other financial burdens that often force residents to end their training before finishing.

Evaluating the bigger picture

Cities have to report on the effectiveness of their ARP spending and that often means looking at data across multiple agencies. For example, stable housing is linked to positive outcomes in health, education, finances, and even in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That’s why it’s vital, said Markovits, that data analysis is cross-sectional. “When you’re investing in these big, hairy challenges like housing affordability or climate change...how do you ensure that your health, housing, and parks departments are all talking to each other?”

For example, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C., in 2020 created a city-county database covering a wide range of public services. Analysts can trace early learning program participants to see if their early literacy gains hold over the years or follow the progress of homeless veterans across various services to get a holistic picture of their needs. For cities just starting out, Markovits notes that program evaluation doesn’t have to be done in-house. They can include a flat percentage set-aside when approving new ARP spending or collaborate with local anchor institutions. “You don’t have to be an evaluation guru,” he said.