New Mexico Roundhouse. Courtesy/SFNM
By CYNTHIA MILLER
After years of hand-wringing over worst-in-the-nation poverty levels and education rankings, reports repeatedly declaring New Mexico “the worst place to raise a family,” a persistent opioid epidemic and a rising prison population, policymakers are pushing legislation they say will finally lead to solutions.
Without the Child and Family Databank Act, one researcher said, the state won’t ever be able to solve its woes, largely rooted in multigenerational poverty.
Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said it is now impossible for the state to identify the residents most in need of services and to track whether interventions are successful because agencies are not sharing data and crunching numbers.
The databank bill would change that.
In a state with limited resources, Mitchell said, “You should make investments that you can validate.”
The measure, now working its way through both chambers of the Legislature, would require several state agencies to share historical data for research, with a goal of developing effective programs and policies to help improve lives — and perhaps save lives.
A year after authorities discovered one of the state’s most horrific cases of fatal abuse, in which 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia was tortured to death near Nambé, officials have said some efforts are underway to repair a fractured child safety net that failed the boy. Jennifer Ramo, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Appleseed, which is proposing the databank initiative, said it could provide the evidence officials need to effectively strengthen child protection processes.
There are many other applications for such cross-agency data sharing systems, which are already being developed in about three dozen states and counties, Ramo said.
She and other advocates of the databank measure argue it would allow the state to transform what has become a fragmented and costly social services network, with little collaboration between agencies, overlap in services and lack of evidence to prove programs are working.
“When it comes to social services, we are operating in the dark,” Ramo said.
Albuquerque-based Appleseed, an organization with a mission of fighting poverty through policy improvements, has been working on the initiative for three years, she said. She calls the effort an “on-ramp” to a better way of governing.
Dennis Culhane, co-director of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, which helps state and local governments launch data-sharing systems, said they lead to “better, smarter, faster government.”
A couple of states that recently began the process were prompted by opioid crises, Culhane said. “You have a public health emergency,” he said, but no means to “get the data shared and to react.”
State Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat who introduced the Senate version of the databank act, said, “I think it’s long overdue.”
Two identical bills, Cisneros’ Senate Bill 202 and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ House Bill 173, would create an independent commission to oversee the data system and analyses of the information, to ensure individual records remain confidential and that research projects are held to a high standard of ethics.
The agencies sharing data through the system would be the Department of Health, the Human Services Department, the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Public Education Department, the Corrections Department, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
The measures would allow the commission to charge fees to outside organizations that request data sets and reports.
The bills call for a small staff of data analysts and data scientists, a handful of workers at the Department of Health to administer the databank and an appropriation of about $1.9 million a year.
Advocates say it would save the state far more.
Based on research by UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Ramo’s organization estimates the state spends $900 million a year providing services to 16,000 families with the highest needs.
“And they are not seeing the outcomes,” Ramo said. “We believe that is because we are not using data to better inform ourselves about who needs services, what services they need and are getting, and do any of those services work.”
Each version of the databank bill has cleared its first legislative committee with wide support.
A fiscal impact report cites possible benefits of the initiative — in particular, the ability to track program outcomes — and points to other integrated data projects in the state that have been largely unsuccessful.
The effort has support from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said spokesman Tripp Stelnicki. “The governor absolutely supports the concept and is open to supporting a final version of the bill as legislators work through the process.”
But some agency leaders have been quiet about the measure.
Children, Youth and Families Secretary Brian Blalock declined to comment on the legislation, saying the department’s position “is still in process” with the Governor’s Office.
David Morgan, a spokesman at the Department of Health, said in an email that the agency “supports the concept of the bill but not as drafted currently. We are open to supporting it after changes are made.”
He did not respond to an inquiry about which specific changes the department was requesting.
The state wouldn’t see immediate results from the databank. Along with ethical issues to address, there are technical and legal concerns to navigate, including privacy laws, Culhane said.
It takes 18 months to two years to set up data-sharing agreements among state agencies, to build a system for collecting data and to begin analyzing the information, he said.
“It’s tedious and it’s painstaking and it’s slow,” Ramo said, “but this is the only way to do this.”
She sees the databank as a cultural change in state government that would affect operations for decades to come. And it’s just good science, she said.
“Right now, we spend — the world spends — all this money on doing science, using science for our iPads, using science for our face cream, using science for our cars,” Ramo said. “And yet the way we do social policy is based on hunches and dogma and really not using data science in the way that we could.”