Expanding Its National Network, The University of Virginia Pay for Success Lab Forges Partnerships in Tulsa, Oklahoma

By Adam Jones, Senior Fellow for Strategic Initiatives

This is part of a series of blog posts to share the University of Virginia Pay for Success Lab’s impact as it enters its third year. In this post, Adam Jones, Fellow for Strategic Initiatives, interviews James Wager, Tulsa’s Chief of Performance, Strategy, and Innovation.

            When G.T. Bynum ran for mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2016, he found himself in the awkward position of running as a moderate Republican in a time of hyper-partisan politics. Facing a far-right incumbent with considerable establishment support, Bynum needed a way to counter his opponent’s aggressive attack ads without losing the moral advantage. “What if, instead of responding with partisanship, we responded with a focus on results?” Bynum asks during TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue, a gathering of political leaders and activists. “What if we ran a campaign that was not about running against someone, but was about bringing people together behind a common vision? And so we decided to respond not with a negative ad but with something people find even sexier: data points.”

G.T. Bynum  Mayor of Tulsa

G.T. Bynum
Mayor of Tulsa

            After handedly winning the election, Bynum set in motion an ambitious plan of performance-driven policy to foster bipartisanism and improve his hometown. Enter James Wagner, a Mine Fellow with a background in civil engineering and urban planning and a penchant for data-based interventions. Wagner now leads a cross-department team in the mayor’s office with a three-pronged approach: strategy, data, results.

            “My job is to empower the city’s organizations to use data in their decision-making,” says Wagner, with the enthusiasm of an entrepreneur in the midst of his latest project. “Our first goal was to create a strategy in which, for the first time in over a decade, we have a broad view of the entire city.” Part of this strategy is to create cross-department transparency through the use of dashboards, public meetings, and autonomous teams. A major product of this strategy is a series of forums called TulStat, in which “department leaders share accurate information, create strategies, deploy resources, and provide for regular follow-up on progress toward goals.” This emphasis on strategy and data naturally leads to the third component of Wagner’s job. “By focusing on results, if something doesn’t work, we try something different. That’s the heart of our approach.” Through a combination of different results-oriented implementations such as A-B testing and randomized trials, Wagner is able to quickly see which interventions work and which don’t. This centralized data collection and analysis lends itself well to Pay for Success (PFS) agreements, which Wagner is particularly excited about.

James Wagner  Chief of Performance Strategy and Innovation

James Wagner
Chief of Performance Strategy and Innovation

            The University of Virginia Pay for Success Lab was the first to bring Tulsa’s attention to PFS. The combination of results-oriented policy with performance-based intervention is exactly what PFS stands for, and Wagner believed this might be a viable option for Bynum’s city-wide strategy. But due to the city’s unique lack of jurisdiction over social services, Wagner was quick to point out that Tulsa would most likely not serve as an end-payer for PFS projects anytime soon. So how could the city, and Wagner more specifically, help ensure PFS projects are created to benefit its citizens? By doing what it does best: convening stakeholders through data.

            “Mr. Wagner has been a strategic partner in our effort by arranging conversations with numerous organizations doing great work on the issue of mental health,” says Josh Ogburn, the director of the University of Virginia’s Pay for Success Lab, as he describes the Lab’s latest project to improve mental health outcomes. Thanks to Mr. Wagner’s connection, the PFS Lab is now working with PACT, a program run through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services that uses the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) model. The ACT model is “an effective, evidenced-based, outreach-oriented, service delivery model using a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week approach to community-based mental health services” according to the program’s website. By focusing on individuals who are not well served by traditional psychiatric treatment, PACT and the PFS Lab hope to not only improve mental health outcomes but also reduce inefficient state spending on expenses like ER admittances. Ogburn highlights the possible benefits from a partnership between the Lab and PACT: “Our goal is to identify a results-driven approach that will provide high-quality cost-effective services to those who have mental health challenges in the Tulsa region and beyond.”

            James Wagner hopes that one day the mayor’s office can do more than just convene stakeholders, but can actually partner in a PFS agreement: “There will be something down the road that does connect with our core mission and what the city of Tulsa is trying to do. We’ll keep at it.” Until then, the PFS Lab is excited to continue working with Mr. Wagner to help improve the Tulsa region through broader projects.