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Data-driven cities deliver better outcomes for residents

Four out of five local government officials say they have improved their use of data in the past six years to drive better outcomes for residents, a new report found.

Two key areas that have seen improvement are performance management and taking action, according to “Closing the Data Gap: How Cities Are Delivering Better Results for Residents,” which Monitor Institute by Deloitte released June 30. The report is based on a survey of 44 officials in the What Works Cities (WWC) network, an initiative to increase cities’ use of data that Bloomberg Philanthropies launched in 2015.

Since then, the number of cities monitoring and analyzing their progress toward key goals more than doubled from 30% to 75%, and the percentage of cities modifying existing programs based on data analytics went from 20% to 61%, the report said.

“City leaders and staff are moving beyond old practices based on precedent or instinct,” the report stated. “Instead, they’re using data to make more effective operational, programmatic and policy decisions. And residents are reaping real benefits, from improved services to greater visibility into how their local government works.”

For instance, in Memphis, the Department of Animal Services increased the rate at which it saved animals to more than 90% in 2020, up from 46% in 2014, by monitoring progress against goals and performance metrics. Washington, D.C., Public Schools ended its Extended Year Program in fiscal 2020 after data failed to show improved student outcomes. Instead, DCPS began a three-year one-to-one device program for students in grades three through 12 and expanded an evidence-based community school model called Connected Schools, which had shown above-average growth in family and community-engagement metrics.

The report also found that four out of five survey respondents said they use data to make better budget decisions, more than three in five use it to repurpose funding or defund ineffective programs, and more than half use it to award contracts and shift procurement dollars. As a result, the report said, cities are delivering services more efficiently, effectively and equitably.

For example:

  • Arlington, Texas, tracked ridership data for a pilot rideshare program and then allocated funding to expand it based on the findings. As a result, officials expanded the program this year, giving residents their first citywide public transit system.
  • Tulsa, Okla., moved $500,000 of federal funding from a first-come, first-served strategy to one that favored the poorest neighborhoods based on an analysis that showed existing processes didn’t help underserved communities.
  • Boulder, Colo., redesigned a procurement process for 65 additional miles of fiber-optic infrastructure to prioritize value and results rather than dictating how to perform work. Using new data for evaluating bids, the city saved $8 million and subcontracted with more partners, including small and minority-owned businesses.

Use of data is also helping emergency response, the report showed, with 60% of respondents reporting improved emergency response times. For instance, Cincinnati used data to determine the causes of delayed 911 call-answering times, create an action plan to address them and ultimately increase the number of emergency calls answered in less than 10 seconds from 40% to 90%.

What’s more, 70% of respondents said their cities used data-driven decision-making to respond to the pandemic, including taking steps to reduce the virus’ spread and providing financial relief to those in need.

“Cities with crucial data skills and practices in place were able to pivot quickly to respond to the ever-evolving challenges the pandemic presented, leaning on existing infrastructure, culture, and staff knowledge to immediately stand up crucial data command centers and public information dashboards in the early months of the pandemic and make critical decisions affecting public health, safety, and well-being,” the report stated. “COVID-19 has illustrated the importance of investing in and building foundational data skills and practices that enable a city to respond quickly in the face of disaster.”

WWC’s network includes officials in 254 cities in every region of the country. Future focus areas for respondents include embedding equity in data use and using data to drive equity, collaborating and sharing data with other public administrations and instituting key metrics for specific city services.

“Getting to more effective local government and better outcomes for residents requires the hard work of adopting foundational data practices, developing data skills across a broad swath of city staff, and putting in place critical data infrastructure,” the report said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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