Data Is Just the Beginning: It’s about Better Serving Residents

By Andel Koester

Consumers today expect the companies they interact with to use data to deliver the right insights, products, and services. Increasingly, they expect the same of government, which is both a challenge and an opportunity.

It’s not easy — even for big business — to strategically use data to transform the way an organization makes key decisions. That’s why helping cities build this foundation lies at the center of everything we do at What Works Cities, starting with our Certification program.

But it’s what governments get from using data and evidence that ultimately matters, and where the opportunity lies. That’s because as government, you don’t use data for its own sake; you use data because it helps you serve your residents better. And by “better,” we mean delivering tangible results you can measure and celebrate, like realizing cost savings, reaching more people, or improving the quality of city services.

The 100 cities that teamed up with us during the first three years of our work have achieved quite a few successes already, but we know there’s more to tell — and more success to come. By making a habit of regularly identifying and then publicly telling the story of the tangible results you’re achieving with data, you can build buy-in and support to keep growing a culture of data across your government organization. In short, more, and more effectively, using data and evidence leads to more, and better, results that improve residents’ lives.

We’re here to help break down what the path to results looks like, and share some examples of cities that are getting it right. The framework we’ll outline below can help your city identify, measure, and celebrate more of the results that you and your residents want to see. It draws on our experience working with and analyzing data from hundreds of cities; external research on impact evaluation and organizational change; and lessons shared by other organizations using data for both profit and purpose. And just as we encourage our cities to do, we’ll continue to refine it further as we and other users of our framework assess what works.

Build Capacity

To use data and evidence effectively and consistently, your city must invest in building its institutional capacity and staff skills. The What Works Cities Certification criteria outline the specific people, processes, and policies that are foundational to becoming a well-managed city. Helping your city understand, build, and apply this capacity is what we’re all about. But we do this knowing that it’s also in service of a larger goal: results that show government working better and improving residents’ lives.

But in order to get from capacity to results, whether it’s one good win or many, a few things have to happen next:

Organizational Change: Invest in Using Data

When we’re working with a city, we identify a particular issue or challenge to focus on, such as using open data to eradicate blight or using randomized control trials to recruit more diverse police applicants. Our intent is to show you how it’s done, empowering you to take what you’ve learned to extend these practices across your government organization. More teams using data leads to more results.

But growing a robust, sustainable culture of using data across your government organization isn’t easy; it often calls for making significant changes in the way individuals and teams go about their daily jobs. To expand your city’s use of data, both leadership and staff must invest time and resources. Here’s how we’re seeing cities make these investments:

Expand your use of data to multiple issues and departments

Your city has expanded its use of data and evidence beyond a single department or issue (such as the one targeted during an engagement with What Works Cities). In fact, this is critical to achieving Certification, where we’re typically looking for a practice to occur citywide.

  • Example: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti campaigned on a promise of using data to deliver results. That’s why one of his first moves after taking office was to ensure that all 36 of the City’s General Managers developed key performance metrics to measure their departments’ success, and then began tracking the relevant data that would monitor progress toward departmental goals. Their progress is published for all residents to see on the Mayor’s Dashboard, setting a new precedent for transparency in municipal service delivery.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has set a new precedent for transparency in municipal service delivery

Add or elevate staff focused on data

Your city has added new staff roles, promoted staff, or shifted their responsibilities with the primary goal of supporting its use of data and evidence.

  • Example: Tulsa, OK, is making significant strides toward more closely connecting performance to budgeting by promoting James Wagner, who previously led the Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, to Finance Director, where he now oversees both departments.
  • Example: The new mayor and city coordinator in Minneapolis, MN, chose to reinforce their city’s commitment to data and innovation by promoting Andrea Larson to a newly created role of Director of Strategic Management, part of a larger effort to better connect the city’s performance work to budget activities.

Dedicate additional resources

Your city has dedicated additional funding or resources to support its use of data and evidence—for example, through a new technology tool; a new office, team, or initiative; or an external partnership, such as with a local university.

  • Example: Syracuse, NY, engaged researchers at Syracuse University to run additional behavioral science-informed trials on city services, after learning about those practices through What Works Cities. (Keep reading to find out the results of this partnership.)
  • Example: Kansas City, MO, formalized the role of its data and performance team, which had grown organically over time, into DataKC. The team now has the explicit mission of reporting on city data and helping city departments apply data and innovation to their projects. The city codified these changes as a way of ensuring that its organizational culture of using data can be sustained across mayoral administrations.
The DataKC Team, from left to right: Eric Roche, Julie Steenson, Jean Ann Lawson, Bo McCall, Kate Bender, and Ekiasha Ruff

Seek out additional What Works Cities resources

These include learning opportunities offered through the What Works Cities Academy and Sprints to continue building your city’s capacity.

Of course, you can achieve tangible results from making a single decision informed by data, without doing any of these things. But if you’re looking to transform the way your city achieves results by using data and evidence in a consistent, sustainable way, it’s important to invest accordingly.

Make Decisions Using Data

Say you’ve inventoried your data or signed a vendor to a results-driven contract — what’s next? Actively using the resulting data to shape your city’s decisions about how it delivers services moving forward is crucial. Certification includes a handful of criteria that assess how well your city is putting to use specific data practices day-to-day, but we also know that the process of uncovering and analyzing data can drive a range of insights and action. For example:

Make a new discovery using data

Your city has made new discoveries, or confirmed hypotheses, about its activities, residents, or challenges using data. You might not always act on a discovery for a variety of reasons, such as timing or budgets, but using data to better understand an aspect of your city is an important first step.

  • Example: Data analysis led staff in South Bend, IN, to discover that homeownership remains out of reach for most of its low-income residents because they face difficulty securing financing, a problem that existing programs focused on building single-family homes did not address. (Keep reading to find out what the city did with this insight.)
  • Example: In Corona, CA, a performance analysis of Department of Water & Power data revealed that the city was being swamped with calls from residents trying to report power outages because the city had no way of proactively communicating with the public about these incidents. (Keep reading to find out how the city tackled this communication challenge.)

Make a new or different decision based on data

Your city has made different or newly justified decisions about services, programs, or policies based on data it has accessed or analyzed.

  • Example: With its new data about homeownership in hand, South Bend redirected its federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding being used to develop affordable housing toward the construction of affordable family rental units, rather than single-family dwellings for future homeowners.
  • Example: To address the influx of resident calls, Corona developed an app that shows power outages and progress of work to fix them. (Keep reading to learn how this project paid off!)
A digital power outage map is keeping Corona residents better informed about outages

Deliver Better Results for Government and Residents

The reason we talk about using data at all: to serve city residents better. And while our long-term goal is to help cities achieve the wins that make headlines — such as improved health, lower crime, and reduced income inequality — there are many ways that cities can, and do, deliver real, measurable results every day. Specifically, cities use data to accomplish the following:

Government is more efficient

Your city has deployed its resources or activities more efficiently. Examples include saving staff time, increasing revenue, or realizing cost savings by using data and evidence to inform decisions.

  • Example: Syracuse, NY, recouped $1.47 million in overdue property taxes through one of the behavioral science-informed trials it ran with Syracuse University.
  • Example: Durham, NC’s, Development Services Center has brought together over 20 city and county departments, state agencies, and advisory boards involved in the building permitting process into a one-stop shop on the ground floor of City Hall. By using open data and performance data to improve processes, the City has reduced the number of days it takes to complete floodplain reviews; across individual steps in the process, there was a 60–91% time reduction (a difference of 12–79 days). The City has also increased the number of engineering reviews, including building permits, completed on time from 49% to 78%, in just six months.
Durham celebrates the opening of its Development Services Center, a one-stop shop for obtaining building permits
  • Example: After conducting a cross-departmental inventory of city data, Boulder, CO, staff were able to identify and reduce duplicative collection of data related to municipal parking use and public restrooms, saving valuable staff time across three city departments.

Government is more effective

Your city has deployed its resources or activities more effectively. Examples include serving more residents, improving service quality, or better targeting services to meet community needs by using data and evidence to inform decisions.

  • Example: Corona, CA, experienced a power outage incident just a few days after its outage app was released. The City saw a 15–20% decrease in initial call volume and an even larger drop in follow-up calls, with more than 5,000 hits directed to the app instead — which also saved valuable staff time.
  • Example: Oklahoma City, OK, increased by 44% the number of residents that opt in to coverage for out-of-pocket emergency transport costs, which can often total more than $1,300 for a single ambulance ride, via its EMSAcare program. When sending open-enrollment letters, the City tested what behavioral-science informed language or formatting was most effective at encouraging residents who had previously opted out of the program to opt back in. The City has continued to retest and validate these changes in subsequent years, further increasing enrollment.
  • Example: Charleston, SC, is building 62 new units of affordable housing after using results-driven contracting strategies to identify and secure a high-quality developer for a $24 million affordable housing project in its Cooper River Bridge area. The City is applying these strategies to an RFP for a nearby site, where 45 additional affordable housing units will be built.
More affordable housing is being built in Charleston’s Cooper River Bridge area
  • Example: Little Rock, AR, city officials estimate that as few as one in three streetlights are working, sparking concerns about public safety. But residents rarely report outages, making them hard to address. A data academy in the city last summer generated the idea of launching a program that helps residents canvass a neighborhood and report broken streetlights through the 311 mobile app. Early results are promising: In one pilot canvass, volunteers identified over 40 non-working streetlights in one evening, versus the 8 requests that had been made to 311 in that area for the whole prior year.

Residents benefit from published or shared city data

Your residents or external stakeholders have actively leveraged city data to make or inform decisions about their own activities or investments. This suggests that the data you have worked to make accessible is useful and that your city is responsive to your community’s needs.

  • Example: Local residents in communities as diverse as Athens-Clarke County, GA, Cambridge, MA, and Scottsdale, AZ, have used their governments’ open data and performance data to advocate for greater support from elected officials on issues ranging from animal control and pet services to protected bike lanes and transportation infrastructure spending.
  • Example: In Arlington, TX, a local developer used the city’s open data to develop an app that allows residents to quickly determine their trash collection days.
  • Example: In Madison, WI, nine organizations used public data in their applications for grants to the City’s Safe and Thriving Communities program. This achievement resulted from the City’s efforts to show community groups and small agencies how to access and better use city data to inform their own programs.

Improve community outcomes

Your residents experience, or can expect to experience based on available evidence (such as relevant policy research), improved community outcomes from your city’s data-informed action. Put another way, these are the population outcomes that result from your city’s more efficient or effectively delivered programs.

  • Example: In the first quarter that Seattle’s results-driven homeless services contracts were deployed, pilot providers were able to deliver adapted programs that transitioned more than 3,000 households to stable housing, an increase of 66% compared to the same quarter the previous year.
  • Example: Eviction rates in public housing in Syracuse, NY, dropped 75% last year thanks to a pilot program that used data to more rapidly identify which tenants were at risk so that case workers could provide support in time to avoid eviction.

Of course, the types of results we aspire to — the ones that make a meaningful difference in residents’ lives — can take a long time to realize, but they are at the heart of why we use data. As you continue on your journey, we hope this framework helps you identify, measure, and celebrate the results your city is achieving by using data and evidence. With these examples to point to, you’ll build further buy-in from your colleagues and constituents to keep growing a culture of data across your city. And we’ve established where that leads: By more, and more effectively, using data and evidence, you’ll deliver more, and better, results that improve residents’ lives.

Andel Koester is Associate Director of Impact and Evaluation for What Works Cities.

Do you have comments on our impact framework, or have any of these types of impact happened in your city? If so, take a moment to tell us about it. If you’re not sure how to drive progress in your city, we’re here to help. By completing an assessment, any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or higher can get access to exclusive support from our expert partners.

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.