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Lean Forward, Articulate a Vision, and Take Action

Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership (Part I)

What Works Cities
8 min readJul 9, 2019


This is the first installment of Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership, a new series by What Works Cities on how chief executives can create a data culture that’s built to last. [Update: Check out our second, third, fourth, and fifth installments.]

By Molly Daniell and Zachary Markovits

When Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James came into office, he entered a city that was, on the outside, celebrating a lot of good news, including population growth, rising wages, and increased private investment in the community. But internally, his visibility into what was happening within government was fractured, and the city’s decision-making framework was not tied to evidence.

“I’m a lawyer, and I deal in facts because they provide us the basis for solutions,” says Mayor James. “When you have the facts to back up your actions, you aren’t dealing with subjectivity. I really saw this as an opportunity.”

Over the next eight years, Mayor James and City Manager Troy Schulte led the charge to break down institutional silos, expand the data and performance team, reboot the citywide business plan to better tie strategic objectives to a long-term financial plan, and make data-driven decision-making a part of city law. The City’s Office of Performance Management, now known as DataKC, collaborated with and drew insights from staff across City Hall to turn Mayor James’s vision into a reality. They worked to build a citywide culture that embraces the role of data in improving city services. Specifically, they supported departments to understand customer feedback, manage with data, implement continuous improvement, and tell their data stories while tracking performance toward the citywide business plan.

Efforts like these helped the city achieve What Works Cities Certification at the gold level — the highest level any city has yet to achieve in the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. This matters because a well-managed government is a better steward of residents’ tax dollars, delivers more efficient services, and offers transparency about how it conducts business.

The Kansas City team celebrates winning What Works Cities Certification at the gold level

To build this culture in Kansas City, Mayor James and City Manager Schulte set a citywide vision for using data and evidence and supported staff to shift their expectations until this became the norm. As Major James leaves office and Mayor-Elect Quinton Lucas steps in, a candidate with a noted focus on performance and transparency, Kansas City is set up to continue to take action on behalf of its residents.

Every city leader can lead with data, but many don’t know where to start. And that’s understandable — this work is hard. Case in point: although 75 percent of cities have publicly committed to using data and evidence to make decisions, less than a third have actually acted on data to change the way decisions are made. A common denominator in cities that make the leap is having a chief executive who communicates and demonstrates why governing with data and evidence is an organizational priority, and who builds buy-in for and ownership of that vision among staff. These leaders have a few qualities in common.

They Lean Forward

In our work with cities, we hear the same reasons to justify why a city’s chief executive does not need to be involved with data-informed efforts. Here are a few quotes from mayors we’ve spoken with:

“Data-informed government seems like common sense. I assume this is already happening.”

In all likelihood, if city leadership is not seeing that work or hearing about it, then it’s probably not happening — let alone happening at a level that’s aligned with the national standard of excellence. If leaders are not actively leveraging insights from data to inform decisions, then they are also most likely missing out on the most compelling and meaningful impact that can come from this work.

“My deputy is really the one who does this sort of thing. I’ll defer to them.”

Many mayors and city managers prefer a decentralized leadership approach, or rely on key direct reports to communicate top-level direction to the rest of the organization. Regardless, chief executives must lean forward and use their authority to communicate to the whole administration, council members, and employees about the shift to using data. That vision can — and should — be scaled by others, but the chief executive must be the main driver of momentum.

“I want to do this, but I just don’t have time.”

It is true that mayors have many competing priorities. However, using data is something chief executives have to prioritize in order to empower their staff to carve out time for this work. Many cities are more aware than ever that tightening budgets and increasing demand for city services is mandating a new modus operandi.

The fact is, in order for data-informed work to thrive, chief executives must be engaged.

They Articulate a Vision …

The voice of the chief executive is galvanizing and unlike any other in city hall. That’s why the vision for a data-informed government has to be articulated from the top. The goal for chief executives is to extend their reach beyond early adopters who are excited about the possibilities of using data and into the realm of the cautious majority. Consistently underscoring the expectation that using data should be the rule, not the exception, incentivizes staff to act accordingly.

Consider Mayor Eric Garcetti who, upon coming into office in Los Angeles, California, spearheaded an internal review process culminating in this memo to all general managers stressing the need for a culture of both continuous learning and performance. In this memo, he creates urgency, articulates precisely what will be different, how will it make a difference for the success of the organization, and the most critical behaviors that will characterize the intended culture.

Also consider an example from Tempe, Arizona, a less populous city, with a council-manager governance structure. City Manager Andrew Ching sent an email to all city employees — and then did so again — articulating the “new direction” for the city, how it aligns with overall strategic priorities, and that all staff have ownership in executing the vision.

“Each one of your jobs contributes to the success of the whole. Therefore, I am asking every employee to learn about the Council priorities and identify with your department how your job helps to accomplish these goals.”
— City Manager Ching

These city executives leveraged their own voice to define the north star and lay out a vision for the path forward.

… Then They Articulate It Again

Without a clearly articulated vision like the ones above, leaders risk creating organizational confusion where progress slows and projects can wither on the vine. This can occur even when leadership expectations are stated initially but then recede into the background of the competing priorities that city halls face every day.

Strong chief executives regularly communicate their expectations, then repeat their vision so that it can become the new norm. Below are some of the most effective strategies we’ve seen, from across the 150 cities we’ve worked with, for chief executives not only to set expectations, but also to sustain momentum for change.

Develop templated language that can be added to internal documents or redeployed as lightweight talking points.

Cities are incorporating templated language about data-informed governance into job descriptions, strategic planning documents, letterhead, or as talking points for the mayor to use during meetings with key constituencies (e.g., the local business community, academic partners, or local philanthropy). This also has the added benefit of aligning the senior team around consistent key messaging. Consider using these sample talking points as a springboard.

Use high-profile reporting or strategic sessions (e.g., updates to city council, budget planning) to reiterate their vision and commitment to data-informed practices.

Scottsdale, Arizona, sends out a standing “City Council Update” that goes to the elected City Council as well to all employees to both celebrate the successes of the day and, for the city leadership, to regularly reconfirm their commitment to the values and direction that City Council has set for the city.

Scale their vision by identifying staff ambassadors who can carry the message during mid-level, departmental, and/or frontline staff meetings.

Former New Orleans, Louisiana, Mayor Mitch Landrieu created his “navy seal” team (the Office of Performance and Accountability). The team not only functioned as ambassadors within the city to promote the value proposition of data-informed government, but also provided in-house technical assistance to staff across all departments. They worked directly with departments to introduce the practice of using analytics to improve city services, provide examples, and lay out a path forward. The team created a presentation deck specifically for departments that could be deployed as needed.

Create feedback loops to keep their perspective fresh, clarify points of resistance, and/or identify barriers to be overcome.

Identifying blight and neighborhood revitalization as an administration priority, Mayor Randall Woodfin committed Birmingham, Alabama, to tearing down one blighted property every day. To support the success of this performance metric, Mayor Woodfin convened a series of cross-departmental “huddle-ups” between department heads, engineers, and vendors to analyze the existing demolition process and related data to eradicate inefficiencies.

(Left-right) Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who also led a data-driven effort to eradicate blighted buildings in his city, meets with Mayor Randall Woodfin in Birmingham

They Take Action by Leading Change

The debate over whether data and evidence has a place in government has reached a tipping point — we know it does. With fewer financial resources and higher demand for services, cities are clamoring for innovative, data- and evidence-backed solutions to deliver better and more equitable services for residents.

But leading change is not easy just because the case is clear and demand is there. Institutional inertia will not change without clear leadership. City leadership must not only lean forward and articulate a vision, but also take action accordingly. It is simple to say, and hard to master, but leading from the top is the only way a city will begin and maintain the process of change.

Molly Daniell is Associate Director of City Progress for What Works Cities. In that capacity, she empowers local governments across the country to build internal cultures where a commitment to what works can take root and thrive. She developed and leads What Works Cities’ coaching modules, which help staff implement best practices in change management and data-driven leadership. She also oversees coaching opportunities for mayors and other chief executives who are building more effective, data-driven cities through their participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Zachary Markovits is the Director of City Progress for the What Works Cities. There he leads the initiative’s work helping cities across the United States use data and facts effectively to tackle their most pressing challenges and drive progress for the nation.



What Works Cities

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