What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative helps the Lansing SAVE program unlock key data

Contributors: City of Lansing, CEDAM, John Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx)

First… A bit of background

As the old saying goes, you can’t see the forest for the trees. When you are too close to a situation you sometimes need to step back and gain some perspective, even invite a fresh pair of eyes to help you sort the details and see the whole picture. 

It was that sort of thinking that led the City of Lansing to apply for the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative. The City oversees Michigan’s oldest Children’s Savings Accounts (CSA) Program. Launched in 2015, Lansing SAVE is a school-based program that enrolls all Lansing School District kindergarten students into a postsecondary savings account. The program is designed to help increase post-secondary completion and offer students financial education training through their K-12 experience. 

Lansing SAVE is unique as it draws together community partners from multiple sectors, including education (Lansing School District), banking (Michigan State University Federal Credit Union) and nonprofit (Capital Area United Way). 

By bringing all of these partners together, the program was able to achieve the near herculean goal of ensuring all incoming kindergarteners would automatically receive a postsecondary savings account with an initial deposit. The program has virtually eliminated structural barriers to saving for college. Students may use their Lansing SAVE accounts after high school graduation for any post-secondary education expenses, such as college or a training program for the skilled trades. 

5th Annual Lansing SAVE night on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 at the Don Johnson Field House

With more than 5,000 students enrolled and thousands of dollars saved, the program is not short on data. However, managing this growing mass of information was becoming increasingly burdensome for City staff and partners. The City knew their data was solid, but an improved performance management structure for their data would reveal its true richness. Unlocking the data would provide elevated insights and help drive decision making. So, the City of Lansing applied for the What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative, and they were selected along with just eight other cities. 

Meeting of the Minds: Lansing SAVE and GovEx Partnership

Upon being selected for the WWC Economic Mobility initiative, the City of Lansing was paired with the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx). The GovEx team provides technical assistance and strategic training to enhance cities’ capacities to leverage cutting-edge data management, performance management, and advanced analytics practices to improve outcomes for residents across all policy areas. In early January 2020, the City of Lansing’s Office of Financial Empowerment and the GovEx team got to work developing performance measures for the Lansing SAVE program. 

The Work

The City of Lansing’s Office of Financial Empowerment and GovEx met weekly for six months to build out Lansing SAVE’s goals, objectives, and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of the program. The technical assistance project had three components: 

First, the City of Lansing team and their program partners’ teams built technical skills through high-level group training and webinars in performance management and analytics. Initially, Lansing SAVE partners needed to be trained and coached on how to develop performance measures for Lansing SAVE.

“Identifying any organization’s performance metrics to ensure ongoing analysis and refinement takes patience, constant reflection, and buy-in from all partners involved,” said Jen Horton, GovEx senior advisor who led the technical assistance with Lansing. 

Second, the team learned how to develop metrics and build a collection system with stakeholders, not for them. The Lansing SAVE team selected a host of measures that ensure comprehensive and regular review of the success of the program for Lansing residents – from increasing savings accounts balances and student participation in Lansing SAVE, to establishing an incentive structure and marketing strategies for parents, teachers, and partner organizations. With GovEx’s guidance, all of these performance metrics are analyzed through an equity and inclusion lens: disaggregating the data by race, school, gender, and neighborhood. 

“We had a great deal of data but no data system. We pulled reports on an as-needed basis, but not on a consistent schedule as to compare and measure growth or challenges for Lansing SAVE,” said Amber Paxton, director at the City of Lansing’s Office of Financial Empowerment.

Third, they created a finely tuned structure for meeting with the performance team, and for securing partner feedback and assistance in an ongoing way. In addition to developing performance measures, the Lansing SAVE team also decided to create a performance management team of partners that regularly analyze, assess, and discuss their performance metrics. Meeting quarterly, the Lansing SAVE performance management team nailed down their meeting frequency, agendas, and logistics for the next calendar year.

 “Jen helped us develop a finely tuned structure for meeting with our performance team and securing their feedback, which assists us with continuous improvement every step of the way,” said Paxton. 

CEDAM’s manager of financial empowerment initiatives, Brian Rakovitis, also joined the team in the spring and provided insights for the selection of metrics and alignment with CEDAM’s state-level metrics work. 

“Having Brian at the table and a partner in CEDAM was a tremendous boon for the performance team,” said Horton. “His expertise and guidance grounded our work even further because he helped us tailor our measures to state and national best practices.

In the midst of this work, the global coronavirus pandemic shifted the team’s capacities and nature of working together. Horton (GovEx) had planned multiple in-person trainings and meetings in Michigan with Lansing SAVE partners, but that never came to fruition and all team trainings and performance meetings were instead held via Zoom. 

“Initially, this project was supposed to last 60 days,” said Horton. “But because of the incredible determination, progress, and dedication to continuous improvement, the team stayed assembled for over six months. Honestly, I wish this project would never end because of how inspiring it has been to work with such a hardworking group that is dedicated to enhancing economic outcomes for all Lansing students and families.” 

In the face of a global pandemic, the team forged ahead and step one of the project was completed. Now, the City of Lansing and their partners must keep the ball moving in 2021 and beyond. Setting up a series of check in meetings to review the data, examine trends and make recommendations based on those trends as they seek to improve program outcomes. 

The story doesn’t end there

5th Annual Lansing SAVE night on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 at the Don Johnson Field House

While the engagement with City of Lansing and GovEx comes to a close, the project is just getting started. Partners will meet regularly to examine the data and discuss its implications on participant success. 

Moving beyond the Lansing city limits, the work being done here has implications for the Children’s Savings Accounts field in Michigan as well as other social programs. CEDAM plans to bring these measures to scale so all Michigan programs can adopt a unified approach to data management. By having this comprehensive set of data we can approach the work from a global perspective studying how program design choices impact participation and success. We will have an opportunity to investigate our influence on major issues, like closing the gender and racial wealth gap or improving college-going rates among students of color.  

Finally, for organizations outside of the CSA field, the lessons learned from development of performance measures can be applied to their own programming. The guide is there to help you build your own measures!

Want to learn more about Children’s Savings Accounts? Contact Brian Rakovitis. Interested in Performance Measures? Register for CEDAM’s October virtual conference and attend the Performance Management session.