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I Have to Ask: Balancing Analytics with Community Engagement

Posted on August 21, 2020


Eric Trevan

In this series, guest columnists choose to reflect on one of three prompts provided by ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Eric S. Trevan, Ph.D., Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College, writes about using data to enhance decision-makings.

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Reflecting on my days working in local government leadership positions, we often had to be reactive to different events, developments, public opinion, emergencies and other life circumstances. Public management as a whole is managing the needs of the public, so somewhat inherently local government is reactive to the needs of today. Resources are scarce, however the passion with local government employees serving their constituents remains unmatched! Now we have a clearer understanding on how to access informatics that support public service decisions.

Passion and care reside in almost all local government professionals and each plays a critical role supporting the overall quality of life in their community. Ensuring that bills are paid, parks are maintained, bike lanes are well planned, water is clean and the overall safety of the community is placed front and center. These critical public services are a priority for all cities and utilize limited resources to balance local services. The use of these resources are pulled in many directions and stretched thin. Issues around data and information access is at the heart of #DataEquity and the importance of access to analytics in order to manage complex community systems. Additionally, with available data, communities are empowered to participate and guide decisions in the best interest of the community and an ongoing focus on data and analytics allow better decisions to be made. In order to make resource allocation decisions, a focus on data analytics that drive decisions that have financial outcomes should receive an abundance of attention-especially in response to COVID19 and its impact on the already stressed communities.

Specifically, local governments have been very reactive to possible business and economic opportunities, which are lumped into the category of “economic development.” Based on the possibility of creating a job (which are not guaranteed outcomes) local governments are taxed (ironic and no pun intended) to provide benefit packages based on the advice of experts in order to allow businesses to make business decisions. Keep government out of business decisions…right (hhhhmmmm)?!? These experts always brought their “pocket economist” to public meeting saying that we have bad economic times and we need to improve the economy so we need to approve their requests. Recently, many data analytic sources have provided local government a guide for better decision-making capabilities. In respect to economic decisions, no longer do experts hold data hostage; rather market analytics are accessible, available and timely.

Two major components exist with accessible data analytics. First, local governments should seek data sources that analyze, not summarize, existing data sets. Early in my career, consultants were paid a good amount of tax payer funds to recommend what economic decisions the city should make. The analysis consisted of adding up demographic information in the city and the surrounding area (remember the market circles!) and then having a meeting where experts brainstormed what businesses are prioritized-and then they wrote the ideas on big pieces of paper (no doubt to show the importance ?) and then put sticky dots next to their ideas. Today, economic information is available low cost and sometimes free (free is good!). Emerging technology has bypassed traditional location quotients and census summaries-these software packages are powerful, use thousands of data points and AI, analyzing relevant market conditions and show demand, net demand, financial leakage and economic impact. This data is amazing and available in seconds to economists, elected officials, city managers and community stakeholders (including the Auntie knitting in the back row)!

Second, economic data analytics alone cannot drive decisions in the best interest of the community. The optimal economic decision is based on the economics and the social acceptance of the decision. This identifies assets in the communities as opposed to deficits/needs of the community. Typically, community engagement was face to face, using public meetings and/or individual discussions-now physical distancing has created immense challenges to bring the community together to build social capital. Using econometric analytics, public meetings and polling are critical to the success. Recently, different digital platforms are competing for the attention of local government and providing a variety of methods to engage the public. Through measuring social media, providing online surveys and simply allowing polling of ideas, local governments are able to balance economic market analytics with community input.

Moving forward, local governments have an opportunity to not focus solely on traditional data summaries for economic decisions, but to move toward using powerful digital tools that analyze market conditions and balance these decisions with community engagement and acceptance. Many advocates have supported these analytic portals, understanding that we need to support the economic analysis and community engagement as equal partners in recovering from our global pandemic. This pause allows communities to recalibrate, plan and build a foundation for the future of the local government. Those communities who prioritize and embrace analytics with community engagement will benefit greatly rising from the pandemic. The future vision will be clear and the appropriate foundation built on knowledge.


Supplemental Reading

Podcast: Economic Development & Data with Dr. Eric Trevan

Member Highlight: Eric Trevan

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