Efforts to Improve Public Policy and Programs through Data Practice: Experiences in 15 Distressed American Cities


Beth C. Weitzman is a professor of health and public policy at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Her research focuses on urban policies affecting poor families; she has evaluated a range of programs aimed at meeting their health, social service, housing, and educational needs. Her work has recently appeared in the American Journal of Evaluation, the Journal of Urban Health, and the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. She may be contacted with questions, clarifications, and comments on this article. E-mail:beth.weitzman@nyu.edu.

Diana Silver is a research scientist at the Center for Health and Public Service Research at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is currently the director of a multimethod, 10-year evaluation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Urban Health Initiative. She has extensive experience developing, directing, and evaluating community health programs for vulnerable populations and substantive experience in both school and prison health issues.

Caitlyn Brazill is a senior policy analyst for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. She earned a master’s degree in public administration in public and nonprofit management and policy from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.


Philanthropies and government agencies interested in children’s issues are encouraging localities to improve the process of collecting, linking, and sharing microdata and aggregated summary statistics. An implicit assumption of these efforts is that outcomes will improve as a result of the new approaches. However, there has been little systematic study of these efforts. In this article, we examine efforts to improve data practice in 15 distressed American cities. Interviews conducted in these cities revealed variation in the types of information collected, dissemination, and intended audiences. We identify significant challenges to these efforts, including adequate resources, turf battles, technical problems, access to information sources, inconsistent leadership, and absence of political will. We find that little is known about the impact of these initiatives on decision making. Assumptions that improved data practice will lead to improved policy making have not yet been realized in these cities.