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Friday, October 2, 2009

Need For Research-Based Solutions Clear From "First Draft of History" Forum

Over the past two days I had the opportunity to attend the "First Draft of History" Forum, sponsored by the Atlantic and The Aspen Institute, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. -- making me a somewhat-absent landlord to this new blog, but for good reason.

In back-to-back-to-back interviews, some of the biggest names in politics and policy -- McCain, Napolitano, Petraeus, Geithner, Axelrod, Greenspan, Summers, and more -- took questions from some of the nation's most prominent journalists about how they are tackling challenges in governance, economics, healthcare, education, and more.

There were many learnings, and I'm sure each participant took away their own insights, but a recurring theme for me was the clear need for research-based solutions to tackle these impossibly difficult problems. In some cases, Gallup is already collecting data that can help inform solutions. In other cases, it is clear that more research is still required.

Let me give you some examples:

On economics: Discussing the recession -- and determining the end thereof -- David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group said that the definition provided to us to by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) is outdated, because regardless of whether there is GDP growth in the coming quarters, there will still be high unemployment. Which begs the question -- what is the best measure of a society's economic well-being? At Gallup, we track consumer confidence, job creation, and consumer spending daily, because we think each of these is a critical piece of knowing whether the American workforce is out of its recession, as well as the economy at the macro level. Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council, confirmed the importance of factoring in such metrics, saying that job creation and real employment growth follow output growth and that we are still several months away from that. Additionally, Rubenstein added that a key measure of U.S. economic strength -- particularly in relation to China -- is whether people abroad still want to buy U.S. dollars. Such sentiments are no doubt best-measured by gathering behavioral economic measures at the ground level, as Gallup does in its global surveys.

On education: Discussing the problems of public education, Colorado senator and former Denver public schools superintendent Michael Bennet and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein articulated a need to first understand the depth of the problem and craft policies based on that understanding. In particular, they discussed a need for tools to distinguish the quality of teachers in the workforce; to identify those "not performing" and "performing" from the "star performers." This is exactly the kind of measurement that Gallup is currently doing with its Student Poll, determining which students are "actively disengaged," "not engaged," and "engaged." Taken together, measures of both student and teacher engagement could provide the tools to do what Newark Mayor Cory Booker said is required -- to illuminate what overachieving schools are doing well and to use that intelligence to create evidence-based models for others to follow.

On health and healthcare: Speaking about America's healthcare problem, Delos Cosgrove of the Cleveland Clinic and Pete Peterson of the Blackstone Group discussed the need to decrease three things in particular: smoking, obesity, and inactivity, saying these create the chronic diseases responsible for 70% of healthcare costs. Gallup is tracking Americans' progress -- or lack thereof -- daily with its Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. By measuring precisely Americans' exercise, eating, and activity habits, we provide policy-makers with the evidence they need to craft solutions to move the needle on these measures in a positive direction.

On governance: On the polarization of the parties, President Obama's Chief Strategist David Axelrod said that in the current climate, "loud voices get a lot of attention because it's good television," which we all know is true. That's why, at Gallup, we are constantly collecting empirical evidence about what Americans as a whole -- rather than those on the fringes -- think about legislation and proposed solutions on the table. Discussing the healthcare town hall meetings, Axelrod contrasted the footage of a few rowdy meetings to the many that were calm and the lack of any movement in Americans' views on healthcare during that time. Again, our data provide the reality check to ensure that solutions are tailored to real -- rather than perceived -- problems.

To underscore the extent to which the need for data was a recurring theme, even the Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that real-time information and measurement, encouraged by technology, should be a key part of how government works.

As a final note, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, while turning over the stage to Brian Williams and Gen. David Petraeus, told a story about how one day he ran into Gen. Petraeus on a sidewalk soon after he joined AOL, and the General asked him "What's your big idea?" Armstrong admitted he was still working on it, but the concept of making sure one had a big idea stuck with him and continues to guide him now. Our big idea at Gallup is to collect the research and evidence to solve the world's toughest problems. After two days of listening to some of the smartest people in the country discuss the innumerable problems that face us, it is ever more clear that measurement, data, and evidence are critical components of the problem-solving equation.


Paul Marsolek said...
October 5, 2009 at 2:20 PM  

Your points about education are particularly interesting. Significant resources are directed at education at all levels – and some of us are not certain we are getting a return on our investment. To have an objective tool to know, “what overachieving schools are doing well and to use that intelligence to create evidence-based models for others to follow” will clearly be the lantern that lights the path of achievement throughout our nation and the world.

Well done.

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