Partner Spotlight: Carrie S. Cihak on centering community perspectives and continual learning

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Carrie Cihak
Featuring research by David Phillips and James Sullivan.

In this Evidence Champion series, J-PAL North America is recognizing individuals in our network who have made extraordinary contributions to the field of evidence-based policymaking. This piece features the work of Carrie S. Cihak, our inaugural partner recipient. Carrie is the evidence and impact officer at King County, Washington, and is working across a range of departments and programs to advance the use of data and evidence across the jurisdiction. In this post, we highlight Carrie’s efforts to center community perspectives, promote continual learning, and bring proven solutions to scale.

From a national scope to centering community perspectives

Over the past two decades, Carrie has cultivated a culture of data and evidence use throughout King County, Washington. Carrie first joined King County government in 2001 after working at the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA). While Carrie remembers feeling hesitant at first in the transition from the federal level, where impact can be made across national programs, Carrie quickly came to appreciate the benefits of regional level work. “I've stayed at King County now for over twenty years because the work has been so exciting,” Carrie said, “I love that I can affect change on the ground in my own community in ways that are so visible and concrete.” 

For Carrie, engagement at the community level has been central to evidence-based policymaking work. “It's critical that we engage community in helping to define the outcomes and co-create interventions to achieve those. If you're truly engaged with community and you’re following their lead in defining the outcomes that are most important to them, then you're going to measure what reflects those priorities. And that’s likely to lead to stronger results from the study, as well as more impact in the community.”

David Phillips, a J-PAL affiliate and associate research professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame who has partnered with Carrie on a range of evaluation projects, also noted Carrie’s commitment to centering community voices. “Carrie has a particular passion for bringing together rigorous evaluation and being very focused on people. A lot of people let rigor and a human touch come into conflict. Carrie does a wonderful job of being data-driven at the same time as always making sure that the voices of the actual people involved are at the center.”

Carrie sees the ongoing work with communities to advance racial equity in King County as the most important of Carrie’s career. “I have learned so much from our communities here. I think one of the things that has really distinguished our work in King County is that we’re trying to bring both an evidence and an equity focus together.” Carrie noted that King County was among the first local governments to have an intentional and integrated focus on advancing equity and social justice. In 2010, King County adopted an ordinance setting a framework for advancing equity, and the jurisdiction is currently developing a second six-year Racial, Equity, and Social Justice Strategic Plan. “The work has really extended into all corners of County government,” Carrie said.

Promoting continuous learning

Throughout Carrie’s career in King County, Carrie has championed a range of randomized evaluations in multiple policy areas, including transportation access, housing stability, and climate. Beyond dedicated support on individual projects, such as an evaluation of a homelessness prevention program for youth and families with children and a subsidized transit pass intervention for low-income individuals, Carrie has kept an eye towards leveraging lessons from each study to contribute to the broader evidence base and reveal additional research questions that can inform these policy areas.

Carrie encourages teams in King County to promote a process of continual learning in their approach to evaluation. “Teams that I work with often hear me say that the success of an evaluation is not measured by whether you get great results. It’s really about whether you are generating the next set of questions for learning,” Carrie explained, “our approach in any of our evaluation projects and partnerships is not to think of it as just one study and its results, but to think of it as a stepping stone in a continual path of serving people better and getting better outcomes for our communities in King County.”

Those who have partnered with Carrie in these efforts commend that approach to continuous learning. “Carrie has spent a long career thinking about evaluation, actively looking for ways for academics and local governments to create evidence-based policy. And Carrie leads by example, designing King County's policies with evaluation in mind from the start. Today, thanks to those efforts, King County is a hub of learning about increasing transportation access for low-income community members and decreasing homelessness for youth and families,” said James Sullivan, a J-PAL affiliate and Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame.

Evidence-based policymaking at scale

Carrie also thinks critically about how evidence from King County can inform work in other regions. “Carrie has pushed to connect what we're doing in King County to other communities working through the same questions,” said David Phillips, “A great example of this is the Evidence Matters webinar series that the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities and King County have conducted together, which highlights particular studies and talks through both the results and the process of rigorous evaluation with a broader audience.”

“I believe that local governments like King County can really be pacesetters. And we can be innovators,” said Carrie, “We can be more adaptive than other levels of government because we are closer to our communities. And that gives us the ability to understand the context and what's happening on the ground more quickly and respond more quickly. A lot of the work that we've done in King County actually has national impact because it ends up moving into a replication cycle in other places, and sometimes it even influences Federal policy. And that's been really exciting to see for me and for our staff.”

Carrie Cihak in room with other people

Building and recognizing expertise

Reflecting on key insights learned throughout a career in government, Carrie emphasizes the importance of building capacity among government staff. “A lot of times when we think about evaluation with external partners and researchers, there can be a tendency to just shift the work on to that external team. Instead, we need to build the capacity within our government and build the knowledge and skills among our staff so they can be an integral part of the process. We need to encourage our staff and our community partners to see themselves as researchers, too, so we are continually learning how to do better.” 

Carrie constantly strives to bring together the expertise of three key stakeholders groups to inform the evaluation process: external researchers, government staff, and members of the community who participate in the programming. It is this network of experts who Carrie sees as the true evidence champions in King County. “The success of the work that J-PAL is recognizing is really the success of our whole team at King County, our research partners, and the communities with whom we work,” said Carrie, “That team effort is critically important in evidence building and how we approach the work.”

In reflecting on Carrie’s many contributions to the field of evidence-based policymaking, King County Executive Dow Constantine, noted “Our Evidence & Impact Officer is dedicated to nurturing partnerships, increasing our capacity, and developing “One King County” approaches to generating and using evidence. This helps us to do all we can, as soon as we can, and as best we can to better meet the needs of King County residents.”

Carrie would like to thank the broad team of researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and community members who are partnering with King County to make this work possible:

  • King County:  Executive Dow Constantine and his Executive Office team, including those in the Office of Performance, Management, & Budget, Climate Office, and Office of Equity, Racial, and Social Justice; leadership and research teams from the Department of Executive Services, Metro Transit, Community & Human Services, and Public Health, and all King County employees who are pushing us and themselves to advance equity and build evidence.
  • Research and Policy Partners:  including those affiliated with the University of Washington, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance Lab at Stanford University, the Lab for Economic Opportunities at Notre Dame, J-PAL North America, the Policy Lab at Brown University, the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, Results for America, Urban Institute, Project Evident, Centre for Public Impact, Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at University of Pennsylvania;
  • Colleagues from other governments:  including Washington State Department of Community & Human Services, Results for America Local Government Fellows and other RFA affiliates, North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships, U.S. Office of Evaluation Sciences, and so many federal partners working to advance the Evidence Act with an equity focus.
  • King County has also received generous funding, encouragement, and technical support from several foundations and other organizations.
  • Most thanks go to the many King County community leaders, organizations, and residents who have led, challenged, and worked alongside us, so that we do all that we can, as soon as we can, and as best we can to build a region where everyone thrives.

Authored By

  • J-PAL logo

    Carrie Cihak

    Evidence & Impact Officer, King County, Washington