Without Data, You Are Just a Person with an Opinion: Why Texas’s Road to Recovery and Prosperity is Built on Facts, Figures and Stats

When Texans conjure up the rally cries of past Texas heroes, those cries usually do not include the word “data.” But they should. 

As our chairman, Tom Luce, likes to say, “Without data, you are just a person with an opinion.” And Texans, like most Americans, have plenty of opinions about a lot of things, particularly how effective government is.

For instance, we spent billions of dollars on health care last year – how well did we do? Did those extra dollars generate better outcomes? 

How’d our schools do? Did kids leave 4th grade able to read? Are Texas students getting the skills businesses covet? 

What about state government services? The current two-year state budget spends $250 billion. Did that investment improve state services? And are we measuring the satisfaction of those being served?

Without data, there will just be a lot of opinions. And Texas has a surprising lack of really good data that answers the right questions and is gathered comprehensively.

That means it’s harder to know where we are, where we are heading, and how to spend the limited dollars we have available to meet our needs. Or to prepare for a crisis like the one that hit us this year with the pandemic. Or to show gaps and inequities across demographic groups and regions of our state.

That’s where Texas 2036 comes in.

Over the years, we’ve amassed more than 350 data sets in our Data Lab, as well as a new COVID-19 dashboard. And we’re about to add another 167 datasets to the list. We call these datasets “performance indicators,” because we believe they are critical measurements of how well Texas is living up to its goal of being the best place to live and work.

Without such indicators, and without good data to help monitor progress over time, we won’t know where Texas is going.

Over this time, here is what we’ve learned about public data sets:

Consistent and Comprehensive

Good state data needs to be reported regularly, accessible to the public, and formatted so that it can be easily analyzed. Because Texas is so different across its 254 counties, some key state data is collected differently by local governments and between state agencies.  Service needs are different across a state as varied as Texas, but the data should be comprehensive enough to pinpoint problems and track progress. Each county has different resources and different community priorities.

Priorities Are Clear

It takes really good planning to be sure we’re collecting the right data for the most important measures. The world is changing, so data that will be needed in the future isn’t data we’ve even thought about yet — such as the data the state needed to ramp up quickly for the pandemic that shows COVID-19 cases, testing, hospital beds, ICU beds, demographics, etc.

Benchmarking

Good state data allows Texans to measure their state against other states. If we’re competing for talent and businesses, we need to know what we are doing better than other states — and where they are ahead of us. Unfortunately, data that compares state progress is not easy to find, either because no standardized methodology exists or because the data isn’t separated out by state. While Texas may be improving some services, other states we can learn from may be improving faster.

Here are the BIGGEST GAPS – Texas’s biggest blind spots in planning for the future and analyzing how the state spends resources:

Data Gap #1: Education and Workforce Data:

Standards set by Texas may be overestimating the progress of our students. When comparing student outcomes on state assessments versus national assessments, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) shows much higher student performance than the state’s national counterparts. The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) assessment estimates 45% of third graders are reading on grade level, versus 30% of Texas fourth-graders reading on grade level as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

Similarly, the TEA’s College Ready indicator suggests 50% of high school graduates are ready for postsecondary education. That figure is much lower on national assessments such as the ACT, SAT, AP, and IB exams. 

So how well do Texas kids do versus those in other states? It’s difficult to tell because comparable data is not collected or methodologies differ by state. For example, many states have an indicator to measure postsecondary readiness but differ on how they define it. 

Seamless longitudinal data is needed to understand educational performance of all participants — students, teachers, and institutions — but isn’t widely available. For instance, data collected by the TEA on postsecondary credentials covers only certificates, two-year degrees, and four-year degrees, even though employers are increasingly issuing their own credentials. 

Further, teachers are the single largest in-school factor contributing to student achievement. However, limited publicly available data exists on important topics such as the quality of teacher preparation programs and teacher pay practices. Better data would help Texas to attract, develop, and retain high-quality teachers.

Data Gap #2: Health Data:

The past decade has seen a consistent push for nationwide interoperability — the ability to exchange, access, and edit health data — as a way of promoting value in the health system. At the same time, concerns about health data privacy have been increasing. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations allow for electronic data sharing but also add needed barriers that protect patient privacy. These regulations also make it harder for health care organizations to use data efficiently – and they limit the public’s ability to see how effectively their dollars are being spent.

There is currently little public access to data on health care costs at a state level, a critical piece of the value equation. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which publishes its state health care spending estimates every five years, is forced to rely on a combination of survey data and billing rates to make projections. 

Telemedicine and other means of health care are improving access to care for Texans across the state. With the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent mass quarantines, innovative forms of delivery have become widely adopted by providers and patients. Yet Texas does not adequately track access to and participation in such innovative forms of care, meaning we know little about the state’s changing health care landscape — and how or whether to invest further in innovations that can improve Texans’ health and lives. 

Data Gap #3: Digital Divide Data:

Current Federal Communications Commission data likely overestimates the population with broadband coverage — it assumes an entire census block has access to broadband service if at least one customer in that block does. Additionally, broadband subscription data from the American Community Survey does not capture speeds of broadband service that respondents have. As a result, groups like Texas 2036 and advocates for better connectivity cannot determine how many users are subscribed to broadband that meets federal standards.

Data Gap #4: Water Quality:

Data on water quality may be incomplete or underreported. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that existing data may not reflect all monitoring done at the state level. Furthermore, not all water systems reported data or received site visits. Some water systems in Texas fail to conduct monitoring or submit required samples to laboratories.

Data Gap #5: Justice & Safety Data:

There are many organizations supporting vulnerable Texans across the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Better data-sharing practices would allow organizations to better serve the needs of Texans in crisis. Due to technological limitations, data privacy restrictions, and the lack of integrated and interoperable data systems among these service providers, this data is not readily accessible. 

Across the country, data on the criminal justice process and outcomes is full of gaps. This is partly due to the sheer numbers, with thousands of counties — each often with multiple agencies — storing data in their own siloed databases. To make matters worse, standard definitions of key concepts do not exist in Texas or across the nation, which makes data classification and access extremely challenging. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate justice system performance in any kind of comprehensive manner. 

To address some of these data gaps, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has begun posting data on court dispositions in Dallas and Harris counties to an online dashboard. This tool, which highlights racial and gender disparities as well as the tendencies of specific judges, allows public stakeholders and policy makers to explore bail and sentencing trends in detail. But this is just a first step. We need the same level of rigor in tracking and analyzing data throughout the criminal justice system.

Data Gap #6: Government Performance:

The state has invested heavily in information technology for years but spends much of its budget maintaining legacy systems that are not up-to-date. Key state services rely on outdated technology, with limited ability to respond quickly to changing needs. Some state datasets rely on self-reported agency data without quality checks. In many cases, significant data gaps emerge because legacy technology systems cannot interact smoothly with new government services and data formats. 

Weak analytic capabilities further limit Texas’ ability to make good decisions due to limited funding and staffing for data analysis. In a 2018 survey of 78 state agencies, only 13 of them (less than 17%) reported employing staff whose primary duty was data management. A mature data management and governance program depends on dedicated and highly invested staff, which is something few state agencies report having.

So, what’s the point? Better data analysis in government is critical — it helps leaders to target public spending to the biggest priorities in a cost-effective way. Many budget goals are focused on staffing and caseloads, not the value that’s created for Texans. Such value should be measured by the quality and timeliness of service that Texans receive from state services. But that’s only possible with good data. 

To collect and analyze the right data, we need to agree on the most important shared goals for the state. That’s why data is the four-letter word we need for progress – the rallying cry that will help us distinguish opinion from fact and help all Texans realize a brighter future.

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