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A plan for America: Design a project, track outcomes, receive matching dollars

A proposal from Results for America and Maycomb Capitol could help local governments jump-start innovated solutions to community problems

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Downtown Salt Lake City

Downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Before I served Utahns in Congress, I was the twice-elected mayor of Salt Lake County, serving more than 1 million residents in a fast-growing state. 

With the taxes paid by individuals and businesses, county government does everything from filling potholes, to picking up stray pets, to inspecting food preparation at restaurants, to building and maintaining parks, to providing health care to those with mental health and addiction problems. Everyone’s quality of life in the county is affected in some way.

Utah stands out as a place that compares favorably across a variety of metrics, including income equality and social mobility. But like every metropolitan area, we struggle with complex issues such as homelessness, criminal justice reform and intergenerational poverty. That was true prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The health and economic crisis of the past 15 months further exposed the stubborn obstacles facing many families as they strive to build a prosperous future for themselves.

As communities emerge from the pandemic’s hardships, local, state and national leaders should seize the opportunity to spur a broad and sustainable recovery.  This is a moment to reimagine the future of government. Innovative programs — evidence-based and grounded in data — should be part of that. Now is the opportune time to launch them, as local and state officials make critical decisions on how to spend federal dollars included in the American Rescue Plan.

I am excited about a proposal from Results for America and Maycomb Capitol to help local governments jump-start that type of innovation.

The Economic Mobility Outcomes Fund, housed in the U.S. Department of Treasury, would consist of $500 million to incentivize local governments to pursue community-level impact by focusing on outcomes. It’s a drop in the bucket as federal government relief spending goes, but it would be a significant catalyst for expanding the most effective, efficient and proven “bang for the buck” initiatives.

Former Rep. Ben McAdams

Former House Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, holds an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for the Deseret News

Here’s how it would work. Local government would engage the community to design a project, track outcomes and receive matching dollars. A local service provider would implement that project and deliver on specific outcomes. Private investors would provide upfront capital, helping mitigate risk, and the Economic Mobility Outcomes Fund would provide matching dollars once outcomes are achieved. 

Such a locally driven plan relies, appropriately, on a community’s specific data, partnerships and strengths. It’s building from the bottom up, rather than being imposed by the top down. 

The responsibility to spend much of the federal American Rescue Plan economic stimulus falls to local, county and state governments. We need them to spend these dollars in a way that delivers measurable results for families, particularly those facing a yawning economic equality gap. The belts and suspenders approach of using data and evidence as well as outcomes-based contracts can help ensure funds are spent well in our communities.

Fortunately, we have many examples of evidence-based programs, such as one in Tennessee that expanded high-quality preschool to improve kindergarten readiness and achieved the desired results. Another that I started as county mayor is supporting former jail inmates with behavioral health treatment, housing and case management to prevent recidivism.

Old ways die hard, however. It can be easier to keep things on autopilot than to ask honest questions and rigorously examine what the spending — no matter how well-intended — achieves. The Economic Mobility Outcomes Fund offers just the encouragement and the means to do something different.

The consequences of failing to measure the impact of our policies and programs go well beyond wasting scarce tax dollars. Every time a child, or a teenager, or a homeless veteran participates in a program that doesn’t work — but could have participated in one that does — represents a human cost.

The public is understandably skeptical about government’s ability to deliver solutions. But the response to COVID-19 required deep collaboration with organizations outside of government, as with personal protective equipment and respirator manufacturers, for example. Let’s build on that and use this targeted means to strengthen communities and improve economic opportunity.

Ben McAdams formerly represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.