March | April 2017

Find Data You Need to Make the Best Decisions

Jennifer Burnett, senior researcher at The Council of State Governments and manager of the States Perform website, said data are controlling most of our lives these days. CSG’s States Perform provides users with access to interactive, customizable and up-to-date comparative performance measurement data for the 50 states in six key areas. The data can help legislators and other policymakers make the best decisions for their states.


States Perform contains more than 200 measures, with at least 10 years of data for each measure. Both outcome measures, such as the percent of a state’s population with a high school diploma, and input measures that help put the outcomes in perspective, such as the number of public K–12 schools in the states, are available. Not sure of what you’re looking for? That’s no problem, Burnett said. “I think the best way to do it is to get on there and start exploring,” she said. “See what’s there, see if anything fits your needs. The data is updated as frequently as possible, so if you’re there and you’re using the data, you can be assured that it is the most recent data available.”


After you determine the general topic you’d like to look at, it’s time to get more specific. Transportation safety, for example, can be narrowed down to the number of state-owned bridges that are structurally deficient. If you want to know, for example, how your state compares to three other states, click on the compare section, choose the states and the measure, then hit enter. “What will come up is a spreadsheet of all three of those states for that measure for the most recent year, including links to the original data sources,” Burnett said.


Burnett said policymakers can look at data from one state or all 50, from one year or multiple years, using one measure or many. The report can be downloaded into any spreadsheet program. “You also can create a map or a bar chart that can be downloaded into a report,” she said. “It’s created from the researcher perspective. You don’t want it to just be a bunch of pretty pictures; you want it to be useful. It consolidates the data and makes it very easy to get the data that’s most functional for you.”


Knowing how your state is performing isn’t enough. To truly understand where your state stands, you also need to know how other states are performing. That comparative data can be tricky to find, especially because states may differ in how they calculate or collect certain kinds of data. The data in States Perform has been vetted to be as comparable as possible, so you don’t have to worry that you are comparing apples to oranges, Burnett said.


Although researchers have a wide variety of information at their fingertips with States Perform, Burnett said the design of the site makes it easy to use. “We’re overwhelmed with information and data from everywhere,” she said. “This brings it down to size and makes it more usable. Most of the strategies we focus on are data driven now. Don’t be afraid of getting the data and using it yourself. It empowers you to make better decisions.”