Ninety minutes. That’s all it took. I gained a deeper understanding of how data informs an elected official’s thought process regarding racial and ethnic disparities in Utah. He, in turn, reviewed the data and considered how he might incorporate this data into policymaking. Both of us acknowledged the importance of the issue, need for increased opportunities and inherent strengths that can help Utah improve.
This is how progress occurs. Data and dialogue work together to open new doors. When we are at our best in Utah, data and dialogue create common ground.
Gov. Spencer Cox here in the Deseret News recently admonished Utahns to “leave contempt at the door” and to “focus on solutions.” I view data-informed dialogue as the best way to bridge the gap between differing opinions and shut the door on incivility in public life.
John Adams famously said facts are stubborn things. He wrote, “Whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
In other words, facts are just facts. They are not good or bad, right or left. They simply convey discernible reality. When we understand data and engage in earnest dialogue, we find solutions.
Frederick Hess, with the American Enterprise Institute, and Pedro Noguera, with the University of Southern California, come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. They recently engaged in a series of back-and-forth exchanges about the most contentious issues in education policy and found agreement in some key areas like teacher pay, the overuse of assessments, and the problems with using testing to label schools and teachers.
Hess reflected on their exchange by saying, “Our conversation showed me that we have more in common than I’d realized and that we can disagree on vital questions while still presuming good intentions, arguing respectfully, and extending one another a measure of grace.”
Data provided the starting point for their thoughtful dialogue.
The same thing happened at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute as we prepared a data book on racial, ethnic, and sex disparities in our state. While we took no position on policy recommendations, we did collaborate extensively with people in our community who often take different positions on how to address inequality in our society.
I was struck by how much common ground we found when sharing the data with decision-makers both inside and outside of the multicultural community. All parties recognized significant disparities, acknowledged we can do better, and viewed Utah strengths as part of the solution. That’s a recipe for progress on highly charged issues.
The usefulness of data to inform public policy reaches far and wide. We know for example that Utah’s fertility rate is dropping dramatically. All else equal, this means smaller class sizes in the future. That’s critical information to know as lawmakers and education policymakers discuss school needs and funding.
The initial 2020 census results show Utah’s population increased at a faster rate than any other state over the past decade. With this growth, Utah jumped from the 34th most populous to the 30th most populous state. Relative to other states Utah is now a midsized state with even more global connectivity, population diversity and urban challenges (such as housing affordability, air quality, and congestion). This is valuable information for decision-makers to know as they prioritize state spending.
A treasure trove of data exists to inform other public policies in social services, public safety, environmental quality, infrastructure investment and more.
When people disagree, it can be easy to assume ignorance or even malice. In my experience a more accurate assessment is that people are simply products of different life experiences. Data and dialogue help link our experiences as we compare differing points of view. Trust builds and respect follows. Next comes understanding. Once understanding arrives, contempt is left at the door and data-guided solutions open the door to greater prosperity.
Originally published in the Deseret News
Author: Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.