1st Quarter 2022 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

Both the Wisconsin Policy Forum and our two predecessor organizations have consistently stressed the need for governments and school districts to set goals and objectives, measure performance, and use those data to guide budget decision-making.

We also hold ourselves to that principle. For the past decade, we have tracked more than two dozen performance metrics that gauge the breadth, quality, and reach of our research; the success of our dissemination efforts; and how we are faring with regard to our revenue goals, event attendance, and membership activities. A summary of our 2021 performance metrics can be accessed here.

Another important input into our internal planning and decision-making is our annual year-end member survey. We recently compiled our 2021 survey results (click here for a summary) and, per usual, they have provided us both with helpful quantitative information and insightful comments.

In fact, a few of those comments stood out for me this year and I thought I would use the rest of this space to discuss them.

Comment: Especially during this pandemic, there’s a need for more real-time information, and while the WPF work products are uniformly solid, they often are a beat or two behind the cycle in terms of addressing events. In particular, I’d have hoped to have seen more from the Forum on the effects of the pandemic on student learning.

 We hear you! We pivoted to an almost exclusive pandemic-related research agenda in March 2020 and kept up our strong pandemic-related focus last year. Still, we would have loved to do more to measure real-time impacts on both the education front and in areas like local government and school district finances and workforce challenges.

Our obstacle is finding reliable, statewide sources of current data. We have addressed that in a few areas, like transit and school budgets, by submitting data requests directly to a few large cities or districts and using those jurisdictions as proxies for what likely is happening across Wisconsin. Still, the unfortunate reality is that we, as well as local and state policymakers, are mostly handcuffed when it comes to conducting real-time analysis of critical pandemic-related impacts across the state because centralized repositories of data lag the present by several months. In addition, the pandemic’s disruptions to standardized testing in Wisconsin schools – particularly in urban settings – has limited the data that could normally be used to assess student learning.

Comments: The budget briefs are comprehensive, but too technically dense to be useful in many circumstances for all but the most close-in observers…I already have too much to read and view. Any methods that help “break through” the noise would be useful.

 These two separate comments get at the same point – some of our reports tend to be too lengthy and comprehensive for the taste of some of our audience members. We acknowledge that reality and have attempted to address it in recent years by providing stand-alone report briefs, video summaries, email summaries, social media threads, and interactive data summaries to make our work more digestible.

Given the understandably short attention spans of many of our consumers in today’s hectic world, we undoubtedly need to continue to seek new and better ways to streamline our research products. However, we also must consider the other side of the coin, which is the value that government and school district leaders (in particular) gain from our detailed policy analyses and the fact that many complex policy issues simply cannot be covered in bite-sized morsels. Hopefully, our recent moves to accompany each of our lengthy reports with a range of shorter summary products is a happy medium that gives our followers a menu of options to meet their individual needs.

You guys do valuable work but it seems there is rarely if ever any follow-through/follow-up from local government. In other words, nothing gets better.

Change is often difficult and slow, but we are not as despondent as the commenter; in fact, we would point to several important policy developments in the past year alone that have been encouraged by our research. Those include the initiation of an affordable housing plan by the city of Milwaukee; steps toward fire department consolidation in La Crosse, Ozaukee, and Racine counties; the groundbreaking for a new mental health emergency center in Milwaukee County; and Governor Evers’ recent decision to allocate $30 million to shore up emergency medical services in the state.

Still, we do share the commenter’s frustration to some extent. For example, we have been analyzing and highlighting the factors creating huge structural deficits in Milwaukee’s city and county governments for more than a decade, as well as the specific challenges to the health of Milwaukee County’s parks and transit systems, yet little action has been taken to address those issues on either the state or local level. And, despite some limited successes when it comes to service sharing, we have not seen a push toward service consolidation in many communities where such action would appear to be a “no brainer” based on our research and modeling.

I would bet that most researchers who have worked for the Forum have seen opportunities to forcefully advocate at one time or another for policy actions that appear urgently needed based on the facts we have uncovered. Yet, the day we do that is the day we risk permanent erosion of our credibility as a nonpartisan and impartial research organization. So, we leave the lobbying and advocacy to others and strive instead to highlight policy challenges that are not receiving the attention they deserve and ground them in facts.

Please feel free to keep your comments coming during the course of the year via email, phone, or by joining one of our policy committees – your input is essential!