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The Myth of Best Practices

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Policy Summit. The Federal Reserve is the community and economic development world’s best kept secret. They are a treasure trove of research, data, and convening capacity working to foster inclusive economic growth. But the one question even they are hard pressed to answer is: What’s Working? 

At the conference, Raj Chetty, second to none when it comes to using big data to illuminate complex problems around economic inequality, couldn’t answer the question of what works to address place-based economic disparities. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago had conducted a survey of hundreds of programs in their service area that were working to address economic inclusion – yet none of them had sufficient data to demonstrate impact on the issues they sought to address. 

That being said, there are lots of great examples of communities trying to solve pressing problems around closing the racial wealth gaps and increasing equitable development. However, most organizations leading these “best practices” don’t have the funding or capacity to truly measure outcomes and impact.

We are currently working with a community in Indiana to help them identify best or promising practices around population growth, employment and wage growth, educational attainment, health, and poverty. While we don’t often have the data to say if the practices we are recommending are the “best”, here’s how we are helping them determine which practices to consider replicating: 

Is it a good fit for your community?

Just because another community has successfully implemented a program, doesn’t mean it is a good fit for your community. Is there a culture, political structure, or critical infrastructure that enabled that success, but that your community lacks? Not that you should be limited to those solutions that your peer communities have implemented, but it’s important to understand the enabling factors. 

Do you have the capacity and leadership to implement such a program?

Even when we know what works, it’s useless if you don’t have the capacity (financial and human) and leadership to implement. And if you aren’t sure if a “best practice” works, but you have an organization willing to take the lead and the political will to implement, it may be worth conducting a pilot and measuring results for yourself. 

Speaking of programs... think about policies. 

As you are evaluating best practices, consider if they are addressing the symptom or the cause. Even the most impactful program is oftentimes only addressing a symptom. To truly reverse the impact of decades of race-based policies that have resulted in the inequalities we experience today, we need new policy solutions. 

We are all working to solve such pressing challenges related to racial and economic inequality. While I would love to advocate for only implementing the programs and policies that we are certain will move the needle, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a program or policy seems to be addressing a root cause, there is capacity to implement, and it’s a good fit for the community, let’s get started with the work! However, funders must start to provide the resources necessary to help us measure as we go, so that we can know if we are making an impact and adjust course as needed.


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