The next era of data-driven local government

Monty Rakusen via GETTY IMAGES

Cities and other localities are entering a new phase with how they incorporate data into decision-making.

In the past decade, cities have increasingly leveraged data to inform budget decisions, identify racial inequities, and reassess service delivery. This shift has helped to improve government operations and residents’ lives. Importantly, it has also helped to solidify the practice of evidence-based policymaking in local government. 

Now, as the initial wave of data-driven government transitions to the status quo, how can local governments further mature in the way they collect, analyze and harness the data they possess? 

Route Fifty sat down with What Works Cities Managing Director Rochelle Haynes and Director of Certification Lauren Su to get their perspectives on this question.

What Works Cities, launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies, assesses how well cities use data to deliver results. The program has worked with local governments since 2015 to improve how they use data and evidence to address their most pressing challenges. Earlier this year, WWC updated their certification criteria to include more emphasis on equity, resident engagement and resident outcomes. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Route Fifty: What are the areas of growth for data collection efforts?

Lauren Su: The data field evolves so quickly and there are so many things that continue to grow. One example of this is disaggregated data, which means we’re not just looking at raw data, but analyzing data by demographics and geography to see who and what neighborhoods are being most impacted. So, we are asking more specific targeted questions in our updated certification criteria about how cities are using this disaggregated data to better target, evaluate and analyze programs. Cities were already starting to do that, but Covid-19 showed how critical this type of data is. San Antonio is a great example of how we are incorporating this need into our standard. The gap was glaring; not enough programs were doing it and not enough city agencies were doing it in the same format, so they couldn’t make the most use of the data they had. Another area we are assessing is the ethical use of data and what provisions cities are putting in place to ensure data biases are identified. Ten years ago, people weren’t looking at the data and thinking where the bias is and how to mitigate it to inform decision making. The power of using data well  means ensuring data collection processes are equitable and used in the most ethical way, so you build transparency and resident trust with the data you are using to make decisions. 

Route Fifty: What changes have you seen in cities’ data management in the last five years?

Lauren Su: A lot has changed in five years. We released a report with the Monitor Institute by Deloitte that examined the growth we’ve seen since the launch of What Works Cities in 2015. We found that the number of cities that are tracking progress to key goals has doubled. The number of cities that are engaging residents on their goals and communicating progress has tripled! In terms of capacity, we have seen more cities invest in data teams and analytics teams. Also, we’ve gone from nine certified U.S. cities in 2017 to 55 cities as of February 2022. That shows there’s a lot of attention, investment and progress happening in cities nationwide around data practices. Another change we’ve seen is more cities having a stronger citywide use of data rather than in individual departments as a result of more analysts working across departments on city priority areas. Lastly, we are looking for - and seeing - more executive-level commitment to data by mayors. 

Route Fifty: What executive level commitment are you looking for from mayors that you haven’t seen before?

Lauren Su: We have seen a lot of leaders committing publicly in speeches that data informs their decisions. But what we want to see, and what we are asking for in our updated criteria, is identifying their daily processes for interacting with data. Is it in the form of reports? Is it a dashboard? How is the information being used? We are looking to see how mayors are setting the tone internally among their staff for what data they should provide for meetings, discussions, and decisions. 

Route Fifty: As you alluded to, there can be a lot of lip service to data. There are times we see local leaders ignore their data or act in ways that aren’t evidence-based, especially in political situations like Covid-19. How can data coincide with perception and politics? How will your work help to bring a more consistent application of data?

Rochelle Haynes: Data can hopefully transcend politics. Because if we lead with data and the facts on how programs are run, how policies are implemented and who is impacted, hopefully that drives conversation. Our goal through the What Works Cities certification program is to take some of the politics out of it and let the data inform where cities invest. When cities start to invest in what works that can shift the conversation around what is important. Data can help take the conversation away from individual political parties and ideologies and shift it to the facts and tell us about how investments translate into outcomes. 

Lauren Su: We hope that data driven practices are apolitical. The use and application of data can allow you to look at whether a service or a program is achieving its desired outcome. We know the reality is more difficult than that. But what we have heard from some city leaders is they are happy when data helps prove a perception is wrong. For instance, let’s say a resident thinks a certain neighborhood is unsafe. They reach out to their city leaders who can point them to the city’s open data portal which shows that the area isn’t less safe than somewhere else -  it’s just the perception. I think there’s a strong case for data being utilized to challenge community perceptions that might be incorrect. 

Route Fifty: Where do you see the intersection of data and local government management being in the next five years?

Lauren Su: First, we will see many more certified cities. Practices that are now seen as novel, like disaggregated data collection, will become the norm. I’ve heard some mayors say that data will help inform how a city leads with its values and ensures it is achieving the outcomes it wants in improving residents’ lives. We also will see improvement in the outcomes we are measuring. For example, there will be more households with connections to broadband or improved air quality in cities. Lastly, we will see a great bench of capacity in local governments to do better and more impactful data work.

Rochelle Haynes:  I hope we will see a cultural shift where leading with data becomes the default and all conversations about city outcomes are rooted in data. Hopefully, city officials, whether they are an executive, head of an agency or program manager, have embedded daily data practices and that’s how they are leading with conversations and making decisions. If we are there, we can have deeper conversations around outcomes, resident engagement and resident experience.

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