Remember the DARE program? What began as a partnership between the LAPD and LA public schools to help kids "say no to drugs" became a politically popular campaign that was adopted by school districts around the country. Meanwhile, through the 1990s and 2000s, more than 30 rigorous evaluations found that the program did not work - with one study even finding that it actually increased youth drug use. Three decades later, the federal government is still talking about reviving this popular but detrimental program.
The challenges that cities face
The story of DARE reveals some of the other challenges facing governments in implementing evidence-based policies. Presented with constraints on time and pressure to act, policy makers may rely on emotions and gut feelings as a "short cut" to decision making. It can be hard to reject the funding and political capital that often comes with a program that has the kind of momentum that DARE had. Even if elected officials admit that a policy is problematic or at least no longer effective, it takes leadership to put energy and resources into changing course. And even then, city leaders have to make the case to residents for why a change is necessary, especially after they have invested time and public dollars into a previous approach.
Local governments are increasingly on the front lines of addressing large scale problems with global implications, such as climate change, immigration, and economic inequality. Although researchers are validating diagnostic models and evidence-based interventions to help solve those problems, local government staff have limited time and capacity to find, evaluate, and implement these solutions. Searches by city staff may lead to promising examples in other cities, links to scholarly articles, websites of nonprofits that work on this issue, journal articles, and related news articles. Rather than weighing and evaluating this information, cities may choose to try one policy solution that seems feasible. Without careful monitoring or evaluation, though, this trial and error approach can lead to an environment in which cities fund service providers based on existing relationships and avoid repurposing funding from programs that are ineffective for fear of repercussions, such as people losing their jobs. Further, conversations about what other cities are doing and the available literature sometimes happen on an ad hoc basis; city staff do not often feel prepared to conduct a systematic review. When cities do make changes, they are sometimes incremental and at the program level, instead of addressing multiple factors at once at a system level. Attempting to address a problem that's too broad, such as blight, can be daunting. Without a deep understanding of the root causes of the problem, it can be difficult to identify the best evidence to use. Finally, it can be difficult to know how to implement a particular policy in your city and whether it will have the desired effect.
When the Unified Government of Kansas City, KS, and Wyandotte County (UG) began working on its blight problem, the UG convened a research team to look for evidence from other cities. Using search terms like blight, land bank, abandoned properties, and vacancy that led the UG to learn about the similar efforts in the cities of New Orleans, Baltimore, Mobile, Kansas City, MO, and cities in Ohio and Memphis. The team also remained open to hearing ideas from internal staff who learned about practices from other cities through their own professional organizations and university affiliations, that they had not been empowered to test or implement previously. Since the topic of blight ranges from property maintenance to safety issues, the City research team had to do a lot of reading and debating over conflicting concepts for tackling a wide range of issues within that spectrum. This involved asking questions about whether the policy will work in Kansas City, and what changes would need to be made for it to be successful. When researching land banks, the City learned about the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit that helps communities address vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties. Conversations with the Center for Community Progress led to exploring the idea of a vacant property registry. Upon conducting further research, UG staff came across information on a court ruling from Chicago that certain vacant buildings do not need to follow the City of Chicago’s vacant building ordinance. This directed the search to understand if other cities had examples of whether vacant property registries are working. To determine whether this might work in the context of Kansas City, staff began vetting ideas to see if there were any aspects that conflicted with City ordinances. The UG also examined the feasibility of implementing the necessary technology and feasibility from the perspectives of property owners and UG staff. This initial research and analysis phase took about six months and was led by the General Services Director, a VISTA intern, and the research team. In developing this Roadmap, the City mentioned that it would be helpful to have access to case studies with detailed information on the policy solutions that cities have taken and the specifics of how they have been implemented.
Purpose of the Roadmap
This Roadmap is meant to empower cities to take ownership of the policy change process, to frame problems in a way that creates a demand for evidence, and to form long-term relationships with political, policy, practitioner, and researcher allies. This work is necessary. Research from the field of implementation science suggests successful implementation of evidence into practice happens when cities take the time to identify the right people to work with, choose the best evidence from a variety of sources, and consider the best way to adapt that evidence to their own context. Through our interviews with city staff, we observed that framing the problem clearly, forming advisory groups or some other coalition, and identifying and implementing an appropriate solution are necessary ingredients to successful policy change.
Through this Roadmap, GovEx hopes to facilitate a new way to help American cities rethink the how they solve problems and address the most salient policy challenges in urban governance.