Thomas Byrne is a Research Assistant Professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice at University of Pennsylvania.
The term “big data” is often associated with the private sector, but an increasing number of governments on all levels are harnessing their vast stores of administrative data. These data, collected for the day-to-day operational purposes of public programs, provide a valuable basis for creating more effective and efficient public policies and programs. Places ranging from Philadelphia to Washington State have created integrated data systems (IDS) that link administrative records from their health, mental health, education and other human service systems into one data warehouse. Such systems provide policymakers to comprehensive and timely information that is often crucial for understanding—and in turn addressing—complicated problems. In short, as this report notes, IDS allow for “leaps of understanding” that can only occur when an issue is examined from the perspective of multiple public systems or agencies, instead of only one.
My colleagues—Dennis Culhane, Stephen Metraux, Manuel Moreno and Halil Toros—and I recently completed a study, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, that is an example of how IDS can apply the power of big data to improve public sector services. Our study used an IDS created by Los Angeles County’s Office of the Chief Executive—called the Enterprise Linkages Project (ELP)—to examine young adult outcomes for 23,000 youth who had a history of involvement in the juvenile justice and/or foster care systems. As the graphic below shows, the results were quite striking. Within four years of being discharged from the juvenile justice system or from foster care (roughly when they were between 18-24), youth used $15,986 and $12,532 worth of county funded, health, mental health, drug/alcohol treatment, criminal justice and public welfare services, respectively. For those youth who had been involved in the juvenile justice and foster care systems—called "crossover youth"—the total was more than twice as high.
The study, which provides information at a scope that would have proven impossible in the absence of the ELP, points to the need for increased and more effective forms of assistance to facilitate successful transitions to adulthood by youth who are exiting juvenile systems of care. We anticipate that our findings will inform the ongoing implementation of state legislation that will extend the age of eligibility for child welfare services in California.
Studies such as ours can be linked across sites as well to provide a body of evidence on a particular issue that is of more general value to a broader range of jurisdictions and policymakers. As a report from the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy points out, IDS like the ELP can be a cost-effective means to conduct scientifically rigorous studies of programs and interventions that promote positive outcomes among youth aging out of juvenile systems of care, and other populations.
From a broader perspective, the demand for the unique type of information that comes from IDS is only likely to grow. The current fiscal environment makes it imperative that public resources are used in a cost-effective manner. This memo from the federal Office of Management and Budget makes it clear that evidence-based policy is on the rise, and that IDS and administrative data will have a large role to play in supplying the necessary evidence. That should be viewed as encouraging news by stakeholders from across the board.
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