The First Step to Economic Recovery is Data

Now is the time to invest in better data systems that will make our state more efficient in the future.

Beyond its damage to Texans’ lives and livelihoods, the coronavirus has exposed the need here and nationally for better data systems. Such systems do more than save taxpayers’ money and state employees’ time. They save lives.

Unfortunately, agencies across the country have been saddled with outdated technologies that make it impossible to pull together information and insights that could improve public health and safety. Inadequate systems also have hindered the massive response that this pandemic has required across traditional government silos. According to an Associated Press story this month, many state and local health departments “still rely heavily on faxes, email and spreadsheets to gather infectious disease data and share it with federal authorities.”

As Texas recovers from COVID-19, leaders have a chance to make investments that will bolster the response to this crisis, protect people and families, and better position Texas for post-pandemic prosperity. The state should take this opportunity to invest one-time money in systems that modernize public services and improve government performance.

Without question, our state faces immediate, urgent challenges. Since March 21, roughly 2 million Texans have filed jobless claims, and according to one estimate, the number of hourly employees working has dropped about 35% in three months. In response, state agencies will receive at least $6 billion from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund — and billions more from other portions of the CARES Act and similar response bills that Congress has recently passed, according to an analysis by Texas 2036, a nonprofit organization I founded to encourage long-range, data-driven planning as Texas approaches its bicentennial.

Without question, the state should move quickly to help struggling Texans and safely reopen the state’s economy. But even acting fast, Texas can still be smart. By investing in good data and analytics, the state can use these vital one-time resources to create long-term benefits as well as short-term relief.

Improved public health data infrastructure is one example of a potential needed investment. Another is workforce training. Integrated data systems can spotlight fields in which Texas needs workers, and state leaders can then expand programs dedicated to expanding the workforce in those areas, such as offering training programs for furloughed employees that result in work credentials in those high-growth sectors. Doing so will create new opportunity for scores of Texans while boosting industries that were in need of workers even before the pandemic began.

Texas’ data and technology needs are profound. According to a 2018 report from the Texas Department of Information Resources, only 10% of state agencies claimed to be “highly invested with substantial capabilities” in business intelligence and analytics capabilities. Imagine a Fortune 500 company coming to a similar conclusion. At best, it would no longer be in the Fortune 500.

Such investments also will help the state use one-time recovery money without incurring long-term obligations that Texans won’t be able to cover down the road. When one-time funds pay for ongoing costs and services, those added costs often need to be cut when the stimulus runs out. But by beefing up its data technology and analytics in the short term, Texas can avoid future budget commitments and actually save money later through more efficient operations.

In coming weeks, Texas 2036 will roll out a strategic framework that uses data to set goals and success metrics that can help Texans create a more prosperous future. The framework will not, in any way, supersede the immediate need to help people, families and businesses that are hurting. But it should spark and inform conversations about the best ways to meet today’s challenges and capitalize on tomorrow’s opportunities.