The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) enacted this year represents a historic investment of federal dollars into the underlying structures needed for clean water, high-speed internet access, transportation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, environmental justice, and more. But if this investment is going to be truly transformative, federal, state, and local officials will need to coordinate and deploy the funds in an evidence-informed manner that effectively engages community voices—with the goal of advancing equitable outcomes.
Fortunately, policymakers at all levels can learn from previous federal spending efforts that encouraged evidence-based decision-making and community engagement, because the IIJA funding follows the American Rescue Plan, which also provided a large influx of federal support for infrastructure needs.
To unpack this challenge and showcase promising practices, The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a webinar on Aug. 31 to discuss how agencies and nongovernmental partners can ensure that IIJA investments in infrastructure building and workforce development—including both programs and research and development activities—are evidence informed and equity focused.
Speakers at the event included Christine Kirchhoff, an associate professor of law, policy, and engineering at Pennsylvania State University; Meridith Polin, a senior officer with Pew’s Fund for Health and Human Services’ evaluation capacity building initiative; and Carol Schmitt, a chief scientist at RTI International, which provides research and technical services to government agencies. Their conversation touched on how agencies and nongovernmental organizations can build evidence and evaluation into infrastructure programs, measure the readiness of programs to effectively spend received funding and implement activities, and build actionable knowledge with communities to advance resilience in critical infrastructure systems.
With the IIJA, agencies and nongovernmental organizations have a critical opportunity to rethink how they support evidence building and use as they work on infrastructure investments. They also can set systems in place to ensure that these investments are carried out in an equitable manner that leads to better outcomes for all. Based on the panelists’ conversation, several recommendations and insights emerged:
1. Engaged research can produce more actionable knowledge for a broader set of communities
Kirchhoff said that what is known as engaged research involves “working deeply and collaboratively with stakeholders to guide and shape research from beginning to end” to produce actionable knowledge—evidence-informed insights that are formatted to drive decision making. She described a project in which teams from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the University of Connecticut, and the private sector worked directly with communities throughout the state to better understand how water systems were vulnerable to climate change and to inform solutions that build system-wide resilience.
Kirchoff noted that through engaged research, the findings and benefits of research can spread more widely to smaller, less-resourced systems and communities. For the Connecticut project, this meant producing a Drinking Water Vulnerability Assessment and Resilience Plan that included all four of the state’s coastal counties and identifying strategies to mitigate the impact of future storms on drinking water supplies.
2. Supportive infrastructure enables more inclusive engagement from agencies
Panelists spoke about the need to meet communities where they are in terms of their capacity to conduct research or engage in various stages of the research process. Organizations receiving funds or partnering with government agencies may need different supporting configurations, staffing, or practices to fully participate in developing research questions, gathering data, or analyzing results.
RTI International’s Schmitt developed a framework for state tobacco prevention and control programs that measures their infrastructure for program planning, service delivery, and evaluation. Such tools help to clarify the importance of ensuring that communities and the organizations representing them have supportive infrastructure in place to prepare for and to use federal funds, such as those from the IIJA.
Polin expanded on this point, noting that smaller agencies and community organizations often need more time to figure out their research needs. She said that Pew recently worked with a cohort of organizations to strengthen their evaluation capacity. During that process, the Pew team “gave these organizations six months to work through their theory of change” so that they had additional time to engage with their community counterparts, including clients who receive services, other nonprofits in the area, faith-based organizations, and residents. Schmitt emphasized that it is often appropriate to pay or compensate community members that participate.
3. One-time funding streams require clear communication and goal setting from all parties
As is often the case with federal funding streams, states and localities will have to figure out how to respond to a one-time influx of dollars that has a set expiration. Kirchhoff said that larger localities with better-supported infrastructure systems, as well as more staff and resources, often have the capacity to more frequently engage in research about their programs that smaller communities or systems do not. She noted that her team had to “rethink how we do coproduction to enable all types of communities to participate and reap those benefits.” This rethinking will become more vital as federal funding in this space eventually ends.
Kirchhoff and her colleagues found that working with community leaders who can already identify problems and needs can help to save time. Her team also tried to engage partners through information-gathering mechanisms that already exist to lower the barriers to participation for communities.
Schmitt advised federal agencies, states, localities, and communities to set clear, achievable goals for their partnerships and engagement efforts from the outset to make the best use of the IIJA funds before they are no longer available. Polin agreed, adding that clarity around goals can help groups identify alternative funding streams for their next objectives after the initial pot of money runs dry.
Angela Bednarek is a director and Angie Boyce is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project. Alex Sileo is a senior associate with Pew’s Results First initiative.
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