Mayors Agree: Data Transparency Builds Trust, Drives Results
Four leaders of U.S. cities celebrated International Open Data Day by discussing why strong open data practices and improved governance go hand-in-hand
Two important things happen when cities embrace open data and data-driven decision-making: results ramp up, and residents’ trust in their municipal government gets built.
That was the clear consensus during the 2021 International Open Data Day celebration event hosted by five southern cities: Baton Rouge, LA; Chattanooga, TN; Little Rock, AR; Memphis, TN; and New Orleans, LA. As members of the What Works Cities network, these cities are dedicated to improving outcomes for their residents through data-driven governance, including data transparency. The event, coordinated and led by the cities’ senior technologists, explored the specifics of their work and offered audience members advice for how they could build similar cultures in their city halls.
[Open data is one of eight foundational practices on which cities are assessed to meet the national standard of excellence in data-driven local government and attain What Works Cities Certification.]
To kick off the day’s programming, mayors from four of the cities came together to share their thoughts: Mayor Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, LA; Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga, TN, Mayor Frank Scott, Jr of Little Rock, AR; and Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, TN.
Phil Bertolini, co-director of the Center for Digital Government, moderated the hour-long discussion between mayors. We’ve pulled the highlights into a condensed Q&A below, which has been edited for brevity.
How have you used data to communicate with your residents and do the work of city government during the COVID-19 pandemic or other recent crises?
Mayor Broome: We recognized early on how much collaboration and data sharing would be required to support an effective response to the pandemic. We have a strong track record of working effectively with other agencies during times of crisis, including sharing and distributing data-driven messages to our residents. As we’ve navigated the pandemic, our data team developed a series of dashboards. Our local hospital administrators, my office, and other stakeholders use data from these dashboards to guide key decisions, such as establishing COVID-19 testing sites.
And we provided this data to residents via social media, traditional media, and even platforms like Nextdoor to help them better understand parish-level metrics and trends, such as available ICU beds and ventilators.
Mayor Strickland: From the get-go, I said that we’re going to follow the data and science with COVID-19. If you show the data, I think it gets buy-in. And I’m really proud of Memphis. By midsummer, wearing masks had become the norm. Yes, we did pass an ordinance requiring it. But part of the reason it became the norm was building a coalition of people who believed in data and the science.
Mayor Scott: We don’t experience snowstorms in Little Rock. But we had one over the last couple of weeks and it really highlights why there is a need for open data and why it’s something that our residents have come to expect. Data played a huge role in our snowstorm response, both in terms of the snow-plowing routes we took, but also in terms of communicating with individuals. When someone would call to say, “We need to get snow picked up,” we could say: “We’re on our way,” or “We were just there.” We were able to track that type of data. People are beginning to expect more from local government, and that’s one reason we’re happy to be in partnership with What Works Cities.
How has your experience been when it comes to sharing data across government lines?
Mayor Berke: It’s a challenge. We should be honest. I think the whole system, particularly during the pandemic, has strained. Pulling different perspectives together has been a struggle. The collaborative piece is tough — and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s tough because of politics. It goes beyond data. It’s about long-term relationships. We have to nurture those.
Mayor Scott: Little Rock is a bit unique because we’re a capital city, we are where the seat of state government is located. So inherently, there’s strong interpersonal communication between state agencies and local agencies. But I also think that from a data standpoint, there are opportunities for improvement. When we’re out of the pandemic, one of the action items will be to strengthen the interoperability of data between local governments and the state, particularly within the Arkansas Department of Health.
Initially, they were not releasing city data. And when they did begin to, it was a couple of weeks lag time. That was one of the reasons we convened a Little Rock COVID-19 Task Force. We brought together all of our healthcare CEOs, COOs, and chief medical officers to help us identify the data we needed to make assertive decisions.
“When a pandemic hits…the organization has got to respond. And it’s only going to respond with data if that’s the culture that you built.” — Mayor Andy Berke
Mayor Broome: Having data to make accurate and timely decisions is very important. I conducted a daily call at the beginning of the pandemic with our area’s elected officials. Every day we were sharing data with other elected officials, so it would not only help me in guiding my decisions, but these other elected officials were responsible for constituencies as well and it did help us to collaboratively work together.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the more we get into a data-driven environment, the more there is a request for data in making decisions from other external sources, like other elected officials who represent different areas. Without this coordinated approach to data sharing during a pandemic, we would have lacked access to key information and real time trends that would become critical in how my team and I made decisions to serve our residents.
Mayor Strickland: I’m going to brag on cities. We compile data and share data much more than any level of government. It’s not even close. Like most cities and counties, we created a Joint Task Force to respond to COVID because in Tennessee, the health department is run by the county government. Through this Joint Task Force, we combined our data and put it out together. It’s a constant sharing of data, and I feel very proud of that joint effort.
Is data ingrained in your culture? Or do you still feel at times that you have to wing it a bit when making decisions?
Mayor Broome: Changing the culture of an organization with nearly 5,000 employees is a marathon, not a sprint. Since I’ve been mayor, we’ve made considerable progress in how our departments and their teams adopt a mindset of data-driven decision-making. I have to tell you, “data, data, data” is something we reiterate all the time. It’s becoming part of the fabric of our City-Parish government.
Of course, we have employees who I would say still wing the decisions that they make. But they are rapidly becoming a smaller group in our City-Parish government, because they have access [now] to a level of systems and dashboards that make true data-driven decision making a possibility. They see each and every day how data can be used to make their work more efficient, more effective, and even safer.
Mayor Berke: In terms of using data to inform decisions, we started the open data and performance management team. And every month we have a city-wide meeting, and every administrator shows up and we go through all the numbers. A second way is that when it comes to budget time, we go through what performance has been and we have a budgeting-for-outcomes process, and we use data as part of that.
Also, to make sure frontline staff are using data as well, we have things like the Peak Academy. We run it every few months, bringing in frontline staff and helping them figure out how to use data to become more efficient in the jobs they do. And we see the results. We see it in the services that we provide on a daily basis. But also, when a pandemic hits, that culture is very important, because the organization has got to respond. And it’s only going to respond with data if that’s the culture that you built.
Mayor Strickland: Ingraining data in the culture takes a couple things. First, you have to hire really good people to be in charge, and then give them the resources to succeed. What we do is when we see performance that needs to be improved, we do a deep dive, and I meet on a weekly basis with the team. I’ve done that with police hiring and recruitment. I’ve done that with garbage collection.
One last thing: data has not only become ingrained in the culture of city government, I think it’s become ingrained in the culture of Memphis. The public now expects the data. Last summer, when there were calls for racial justice around the country, residents wanted to see more transparency on use-of-force data as part of an effort to reimagine policing. That goes back to an ingrained culture in the city: People want more transparency and more data.
Do you believe data is helping your communities trust their local government more because the communications you’re providing are based on facts and data?
Mayor Broome: Since I’ve been mayor, I’ve consistently told my team and have made the word transparency part of the fabric of our administration. It’s one thing to say we’re transparent, but it’s an entirely different thing to then point to the dozens of datasets and millions of data records that are available to the public 24/7/365.
This approach to transparency and open data helps build trust and credibility with the residents in our community. Here’s an example: Polling about our data-sharing efforts shows our constituents have been extremely impressed that we have Open Checkbook BR. It lets people see every penny we spend in City-Parish government. This mindset has helped us build a tremendous amount of credibility and shows how serious we are when it comes to being transparent with our community.
Mayor Strickland: The great thing about data is, it’s truthful. It shows your warts and all — and you ought to be truthful about the warts. [It makes] a big difference in being honest about it: These are our problems, this is what the data shows, and the data is pointing us to fix it this way. I’ll give you an example: our 911 call times. The public knew our average time to answer calls was terrible. So we measured it. We told the public what the problem is and we quantified it. And then we said, “This is our plan to fix it.” As time goes on, and we hopefully improve and put that data up, it builds faith in government, builds faith in your city.
Mayor Scott: It’s the expectation now that there’s more information on local governments web pages, for more data in communications to demonstrate what’s happening in the city, whether it’s an infrastructure project, something that has to do with code enforcement, or now with our community schools model. And, not just communicating what’s going on, but how impactful it is. That is the new standard. Each city is going to be graded on how open the data platform is, how data has been used to drive policy decisions, how easy and user-friendly can it be that any resident can not only access the data but understand it to ensure they’re more well-informed residents. And that our cities are doing right by our customers which are the residents.
Mayor Berke: Certainly for city government, the demands of the last year between the calls for racial justice, the COVID-19 health pandemic, the ramifications for our economy and where businesses are closing… We don’t have a minute to spare, we don’t have a dollar to waste. We don’t have any room for misses. When the calls for racial justice started to get loud last spring and we were seeing protests in our city, we’d already been working for a long time on a racial equity dashboard for policing. The protests caused us to ramp up our work on it and get it out pretty quickly, [which] we could do because we had been working on it. That helped build trust.
The most important thing that local government has is trust. People don’t really trust the federal government, and they’re not sure what the state government does a lot of times. The place where they’re looking for solutions is local government because that’s the only place they trust. We cannot lose that.
Baton Rouge, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Memphis, and New Orleans are all members of the What Works Cities network and have demonstrated a commitment to data-driven leadership and decision making. Open Data is one of the foundational data practices outlined by What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government.
What Works Cities is a national initiative that partners with cities as they tackle pressing community challenges and improve residents’ lives through data-driven decision-making. Learn more about the program and how to get access to support, here.
Completing a What Works Cities Assessment is the first step to receiving exclusive, pro bono support from What Works Cities to continue building a more effective local government. The program is open to any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or higher.