When this piece was organized in December, it seemed that although many people were eager to turn the page on 2020, it would be heartening to memorialize the astounding quality of work the organizations that make up the Governmental Research Association were able to complete in a year defined by pandemic, social unrest and economic disruption. GRA organizations perform government research in the public interest, collecting, analyzing and distributing factual information about governmental activities. We may not think, day to day, about how our sometimes obscure work helps sustain democracy, but combating disinformation and misinformation is unquestionably more important now than ever. Please read this piece in that spirit: the indispensable nature of independent, credible, objective and accurate facts and information to government at the local, state and federal levels.

The following is a compilation of the wide variety of achievements, goals, reports and other assorted good things that have been submitted as top 2020 accomplishments by GRA organizations. Many thanks to everyone who provided their hit tracks—additions will be made as they are received. Just email Sarah Wetmore at president@graonline.org.

Bureau of Governmental Research – New Orleans, Louisiana

In December 2020, barely a month after the presidential election, New Orleans voters returned to the polls to decide a $23 million property tax rededication package. The City of New Orleans asked voters to increase recurring revenue for infrastructure, early childhood education, housing and economic development, while offsetting those increases with a nearly 40% revenue cut for public libraries. BGR’s Nov. 16 “On the Ballot” report found the new infrastructure, housing and economic development revenue lacked clear spending plans. BGR also found a lack of strategic planning or a clear roadmap for right-sizing the libraries’ budget before their reserves ran out.

BGR took a position against the proposal and urged the City to address these shortcomings and return to voters in 2021 with a clearer proposal. As public concern about the proposal grew stronger, citizens and the news media welcomed BGR’s report as a resource to better understand the proposal and its significant flaws. BGR delivered its analysis in multiple ways, including the main “On the Ballot” report, a two-page summary, social media, news interviews, and an expanded report for those interested in a deeper understanding of the policy issues. Voters rejected the tax rededication proposal by a significant margin.

CGR – Rochester, New York

CGR expanded its work in 2020 to advance racial equity through a series of projects. Most significantly, CGR was engaged by City and County government in Rochester, NY to work with the local Racial and Structural Equity Commission to examine local laws, policies and practices that pose barriers to equity, as well as recommending changes to increase equity. The Commission’s working groups spanned the domains of health, education, criminal justice, policing, job creation, mental health, substance abuse services and human services. In early 2021, CGR and the commission were working to finalize recommendations. Like Minneapolis, Rochester was the site of a police-involved death that sparked months of protest, heartbreak and soul-searching in the community after police body camera footage came out showing a naked, obviously distressed man ultimately forced to lie face down on a city street in March with a “spit hood” over his head. Daniel Prude’s death at 41 on March 30 was ruled a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

CGR also authored a paper in April examining community-based racial justice and equity initiatives across the country to better understand the types of initiatives that communities are engaged with nationally, the traits and best practices associated with these initiatives, and how success is defined and measured. And the organization is assisting with the transition of Rochester’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative to a new organizational home at the Urban League of Rochester.

Citizens Research Council of Michigan

CRC successfully continued its initiative of increasing its attention to blogging in 2020, publishing a total of 57 pieces and outpacing 2019 blog entries. CRC has used blog entries in its bi-monthly email “updates” to Board members and supporters. A focus on short blog pieces enabled the Citizens Research Council to devote a significant amount of research time to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the State and local governments in Michigan. The blog also enables CRC to highlight and amplify current and past CRC research and publications and promote them through social media outlets.

Civic Federation – Chicago, Illinois

The Civic Federation was able to more deeply engage with our Board of Directors in 2020 through timely speakers and by calling on the expertise provided by our Board policy committees to address the state and local governmental challenges posed by the pandemic. Additionally, the Federation expanded the focus of our weekly blog to include analysis of the financial impact of federal coronavirus relief legislation on the governments we study.

The Civic Federation is pleased to annually honor the achievements of non-elected public servants through the Motorola Solutions Foundation Excellence in Public Service Award. However, the public servants selected by the Award’s Advisory Committee in November 2020 are particularly noteworthy as the architects and leaders of the State of Illinois and City of Chicago’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, and Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. A virtual event will honor their accomplishments in February 2021.

Florida Tax Watch

Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic M. Calabro said, “Just as we have for more than 40 years, in 2020 Florida TaxWatch fought tirelessly for our state’s taxpayers and produced invaluable analysis and policy proposals in response to the COVID-19 pandemic through our COVID-19 Taxpayer Task Force report, ‘Bringing Florida’s Budget Back from COVID-19,” a Roadmap for a Responsible Recovery report and many detailed assessments of revenue estimates and budget forecasts. As the eyes and ears of Florida taxpayers, we will continue to provide leaders at every level of government thoughtful recommendations to guide Florida forward and work every day to best serve the interests of our state and its people.”

Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council

At RIPEC, we are most proud of the recent report we completed on K-12 school reopening and distance learning. The report raised concerns about increased inequity across Rhode Island’s public elementary and secondary education system since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on RIPEC’s analysis, about one-third of the students in Rhode Island’s 36 districts had access to full in-person learning as of October 13, while approximately half had partial access to in-person learning, and about one-eighth had no in-person learning access. “While there are major public health and operational challenges to reopening our public schools, it should not be acceptable to policymakers that the students most likely to be denied access to in-person instruction are already experiencing low proficiency rates,” said RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase. “They can least afford to suffer the learning loss expected to result from distance learning,” he continued. RIPEC’s analysis also found that there is a wide range of distance learning strategies employed across school districts, likely resulting in varying student outcomes.

In its report, RIPEC makes several policy recommendations, including the need for a larger discussion as to whether the current decentralized model for public education in Rhode Island delivers the best outcomes for all students. “The decentralized structure of our current system essentially preordained that schools would struggle to respond to a major challenge of the kind presented by the pandemic,” said DiBiase. “While [the Rhode Island Department of Education] issued guidance and advice, and required reopening plans, the actual mechanics of reopening and distance learning were largely left to the educational leaders, school committees, and governing boards for 36 different school districts, 23 charter schools, and five state schools.”

Utah Foundation

In September 1945, Utah Foundation was born, motivated by the desire of business and civic leaders to confront the challenges of post-war demobilization. In 2020, Utah Foundation celebrated its 75-year anniversary, but perhaps fittingly also spent the year confronting the great economic, public health and social challenges the pandemic has visited upon Utah.

The result was one of the most productive years in the organization’s storied history, with:

Our guide to Utah’s 2020 constitutional amendments was possibly the most-read Utah Foundation report in our 75-year history.

We are proud of 2020, and as 2021 begins, we already have in hand a long and potent to-do list.

Wisconsin Policy Forum

In December 2020, the major health systems in the Milwaukee region and Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division announced an agreement to jointly create and operate a new psychiatric emergency department near downtown Milwaukee. The agreement is decade in the making and reflects core recommendations from a landmark 2010 Policy Forum report that aimed to redesign the psychiatric crisis service system in Milwaukee County to meet national best practices. The county and private sector partners embraced the reforms in the 2010 report, which were fortified by a subsequent report co-authored by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in 2018 that launched the planning for the new joint venture.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in a December article on the collaboration emphasized that, “[t]he Behavioral Health Division, step by step and to varying degrees, has followed the report’s 10 recommendations – Mike Lappen, its administrator, can cite them by memory. ‘Those recommendations have been absolutely embraced, with great success,’ Lappen said.” In the same article, Wisconsin Policy Forum president Rob Henken said, “The story here is this is an example where the public sector and private sector were able to build trust and build a strong working relationship and put together a plan and execute…It’s not often that you see that.”