You can’t manage what you can’t measure

Statistics take “millions of dollars” and “years to analyze” says Library staff in begging off the task

I just attended an interesting local board meeting where every local problem, and they are legion, was touched upon or hinted at in an indirect manner. How the Library Board came to be the nexus of that, I am not exactly sure, but here is my best guess:

In Central Valley towns everywhere, including Porterville, social problems abound. No need to get into the specifics of why, but John Steinbeck wrote about it in Grapes of Wrath so they are well known to the American public. The problems shown there have not been solved, not a one of them. Oh some of them are not quite as bad as they used to be, but some are worse.

So it seems that in order to fight the Ghost of Tom Joad, in a pique of blaming current crime levels for all the ills of the City, a few years back before I arrived, the town voted to tax itself with a local sales tax of .75 percent in a ballot measure known as Measure H.

Measure H doles out the money 85% to police and safety for new toys to “reduce crime”. The other 15% is supposed to go to the library for vaguely defined “literacy programs” because it is believed that doing so will also reduce crime.

All well and good I suppose, but there is a catch. The cops want that 15% and the locals are inclined to give it to them, or at least make the Library beg continually to justify every single dollar, although cops and fire departments have no such pressure to justify their large piece of the pie.

How does that happen? There is a committee, called an oversight committee, that once a year reports to City Council its opinion as to whether the Measure H funds (the Library part of it in practice) were spent “wisely” during the preceding year.

This past year there was a large controversy, because for the first time the Committee told the Council that the funds had not been spent wisely.

So the Council is leaning on the Library to justify its very existence by creating a “business plan” in order to justify the part of the budget that would come from the 15%. That request was made about 3 or 4 months ago.

Tonight the Library board met to accept and recommend the “Plan” that Library staff created to Council on Wednesday. Problem is, the Plan is not really a Business Plan. Both I and another member of the public, actually, a member of the Oversight Committee, were present to gently inform the Board they were headed for another disaster.

But the Board barely understood. It is not persuasive enough to toss out programs and assert they cause crime to go down in Porterville. Some sort of evidence is needed. There are at least some descriptive statistics available, but all the Plan has are aggregate statistics with 5 and 6 significant figures. Really? You know how many “visits” there were in a year to 1 part in a million? How much next year’s budget will be to nearly 1 part in a million in advance? That’s pretty creative!

Meantime, if there is no breakdown of even that by month or of program usage by demographic, let alone any outcomes from the programs, then there is no hope at all of correlating them with the statistics the police department has, or other demographic information that City Hall has. Let alone running a regression of some sort that might identify the relative contributions of each program to an outcome, which would be really helpful for identifying how to spend the 15%.

Or even better, to evaluate the contribution of all programs in Library Services, Police, Fire and Safety Services, in order to see what is the best way to dole out the funds, if in fact anything serves to reduce crime in those areas at all (an iffy proposition in my mind off the top of my head).

But real data would mean hard choices – maybe we could eliminate the tax, or refigger it in a new ballot measure. Maybe the library would get more, and could be run more entrepreneurially. And maybe, just maybe, this could extend to actual measurements of data, with actual hypotheses that can be studied, with actual aims of curing some of the social ills that ad hoc approaches have not solved since long before John Steinbeck and Dorty Lange brought them to the attention of the broad American public. Not by Wednesday, when the report will be made to the Council, but maybe soon.

Posted in General Information, Porterville City Council.