The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 15, 2014

U-turn now: A GPS for neighborhood change

August 15, 2014

A rigorous performance measurement process is like a GPS for neighborhood change initiatives.

GPS points travelers in the right direction and provides real-time information on whether they are on the right course. Performance measurement can provide the same type of real-time data to let service providers know when a program might need to make a U-turn.

Getting started with performance measurement

For organizations that are working to change whole communities, there are a few foundational principles that are always worth repeating:

  • No one knows exactly how to do it.The work to reform policies and systems that haven't produced the right results is going to look different in every community. Those working on this are often innovators, and will experience successes and failures along the way.
  • It's going to take a long time.Community change doesn't usually happen in a few years; it takes a level of scale and sustainability that isn't the norm for most individual programs.

While these two principles should provide the space neighborhood change initiatives need to experiment and identify long-term solutions, they also show how important it is to adopt performance measurement practices at a level of rigor most have never done before.

Performance measurement in practice

When Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) started working to reduce child welfare involvement among local families, program managers knew they'd be headed in the right direction if they saw a decrease in the number of parents who reported it was okay to hit their children for discipline.

But HCZ president Geoffrey Canada was alarmed to learn that after participating in the organization’s first parenting classes, an early cohort of parents actually reported it was okay to hit children more often.

Because HCZ had the program data to show them what was happening, the organization was able to immediately redesign parenting classes to make sure they led to the right results.

The Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) had to make a similar detour. To teach parents that domestic violence is not appropriate in any culture, LAYC added lessons to their parenting curriculum. When data on participants’ attitudes before and after the program were analyzed, LAYC realized they were headed in the wrong direction, with more participants reporting that domestic violence is an acceptable part of the Latino culture than before the program.

Using these data, LAYC adjusted the program to include separate classes for men and women and found that participants were more comfortable expressing their feelings in this format than in a mixed-gender environment. More data collection showed that the new program design resulted in positive changes in participants’ attitudes.

Getting on the right track

Had these organizations not been collecting the data they needed to immediately understand the performance of their programs, they would have ended up far from the intended results, and actually may have led some participants toward harmful outcomes.

Most of us would not choose to set off on a long, unfamiliar road trip without a GPS system to tell us if we’re headed in the right direction. Collecting real-time data on the performance of programs is just as important. When the work of neighborhood change is complex and long-term, we can expect traffic, detours, and lost signals, but performance measurement provides the necessary direction to avoid negative outcomes and head toward the right results.

PhotoGeoffrey Canada, left, head of Harlem Children's Zone and the new Promise Academy, talks to a participant of he HCZ Summer Olympics, Aug. 18, 2004 in New York. Canada wants to prove that all kids can succeed, and his reputation as a social service innovator will be tested with the opening of a new charter school in Harlem, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004, an area where more than half of high school students drop out before graduating. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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