We launched ncIMPACT in 2017 to help public officials in North Carolina navigate critical policy challenges across a wide range of topics, including health, education, economic development, criminal justice, public finance, and the environment. As we planned this new initiative, we wanted to hear from practitioners and other citizens about the most vexing policy issues in their community and in the state as a whole, and what we could do to help. As such, in January 2017 we drafted an online survey and distributed it with the assistance of various peer associations and a targeted Twitter campaign. Over the course of two months, we received 154 responses to our survey. Please read on for an analysis of our results.
To better understand our survey sample, we asked respondents to tell us whether their communities could best be described as urban, suburban, or rural, and whether they happened to work in local government, state government, or the private sector (recognizing that these categories are far from exhaustive). The results are shown in the two charts below.
Next, we solicited narrative responses via the following open-ended questions:
- What would you consider to be your community’s greatest challenge(s)?
- What would you consider to be North Carolina’s greatest challenge(s)?
Responses to the two questions were similar and can be grouped together for the purposes of content analysis. We also asked a third question about constraints (other than simply resources) that delay or prevent effective responses to the identified challenges. Many of the responses to this question restated the earlier challenges, or cited problems outside of our potential scope—for example, political disputes, cultural norms, and perceived gerrymandering.
Our questions about challenges in respondents’ communities and across North Carolina generated a host of thoughtful responses. We present the most-cited challenges below as a series of summary statements, followed by actual comments from respondents that give each statement additional context.
We need to reduce the stark divide between urban and rural areas on important “quality of life” indicators.
- “Bridging the urban-rural divides. We must find a way to ensure economic, educational, and cultural opportunities are available for our citizens regardless of which part of the state they call home.”
- “In a world of increasing urbanization, the health of rural communities, sustainable farms, and disintermediated pathways to bring local goods to the urban markets.”
- “Balancing growth in urban/high concentration/suburban areas while also supporting the more rural/less developed regions of our state. Each area has strong assets to contribute to the growth of our state and both strengths should be appropriately cultivated.”
Growth brings with it opportunity for residents but also pressure to maintain adequate infrastructure, services, and green space.
- “The benefits and challenges of growth—increasing job availability in a largely residential community, increasing transportation networks to support residential growth, and balancing the needs of longtime residents with the needs of people moving to the area.”
- “Most of our challenges come from dealing with the growth and having to grow up so fast. We have to start behaving like a larger metro area.”
- “Environment as it applies to congestion, pollution, mass transit, and preservation of natural spaces. The planning of towns contending with sprawl and the lack of foresight is appalling.”
Economic development requires more from local leaders than just a campaign to bring new businesses to town.
- “Our largest challenges are economic development and infrastructure. These two go hand in hand, from attracting new businesses to helping those we currently have remain viable in small town NC. To attract new businesses we need to make sure our infrastructure can meet their needs.”
- “Our state is lagging behind other states in economic development programs and funding initiatives to move NC forward.”
- “Balancing the need for economic development and growth initiatives with maintaining small town charm and character.”
Maintaining and expanding public infrastructure is costly, but failing to do so can curb growth.
- “Adequate resources—other than tax revenues—to fund initiatives that will allow our community to grow, for instance water and sewer infrastructure.”
- “We lack infrastructure for economic development including water, sewer, and lack of spaces for companies to move into.”
- “Rehabilitating and building new infrastructure to serve an expected surge in population.”
In some places, there are not enough jobs for any skill level. In others, there is a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills mix of the existing workforce.
- “We recruit talent more than we develop it with native North Carolinians. We need more jobs that pay living wages—low wage jobs are straining the social safety net and hurting families.”
- “Getting adequate funding and resources for our future workforce: pre-K, students in public schools, community colleges, state and private universities.”
- “Not becoming a state of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ due to education and employment.”
The stock of affordable housing has not kept pace with the need at low- and middle-income levels.
- “Sustainability and inclusion. The lack of middle tier housing options limits the demographics and economic vibrancy of our communities.”
- “My community struggles greatly from economic disparities and the massive gap between impoverished communities and our wealthiest citizens. We have homeless veterans living on the riverfront and high-end condos and apartments within five city blocks.”
- “Rehabilitation of stressed neighborhoods and quality affordable housing to attract young professionals to the area to live and work.”
Closing the achievement gap in education requires more resources, but also strategic thinking and a multi-year focus; geographic disparities can be stark, even within the same school district.
- “We see potential for our children now to rely heavily on public assistance unless we are able to prepare them to function in a skilled workforce environment. Investment in early education as a long range strategy to reduce public expenditure on social services and to support economic development is increasingly critical.”
- “Improving schools. Upgrade teacher quality and make schools equal. There shouldn’t be a few outstanding schools and many poorer ones.”
- “Top notch education for all, not just for families that have the means to move to great school systems.”
How we treat the most vulnerable in our communities—the young, the poor, the disabled, the addicted—has ripple effects throughout each community and our state as a whole.
- “Addressing the needs of families. Health, education, economic development, and criminal justice are all connected to family stresses. We need to invest in family supports that address those stresses and help families succeed so that we are not, in turn, stressing our public health, social services, criminal justice, and education systems.”
- “Understanding the fundamental challenge presented by the Adverse Childhood Experiences study—and the long-term financial, health, and social consequences of our failure to prevent such experiences, particularly child abuse, neglect, and mental health. We’re paying for it everywhere and none of our leaders are focusing on the root causes of these major expenses.”
- “Substance abuse is a public health crisis and a workforce development impediment.”
How ncIMPACT could help
Finally, we asked respondents to assess a variety of services ncIMPACT could provide to help local officials, public managers, and other citizens navigate these complex challenges. The charts below summarize respondents’ views about the utility of various activities, from “Very useful” to “Not useful.”
- Refining the policy concern
- Exploring policy options
- Supporting consensus and shared learning
- Determining the effectiveness of policy directions
Respondents expressed a clear demand for services that identify important issues and harness data to illuminate these issues in a way that is accessible to practitioners and the public alike. Respondents also valued the ability to convene the right stakeholders, ask the right questions, and learn the right lessons from participants and peer communities. Finally, respondents strongly supported the evaluation of public programs, with results conveyed to the appropriate decision-makers and the public at large. We look forward to expanding the work of ncIMPACT in the months to come with this guidance in mind.