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Moving from Vision to Action: Strategic Delegation & Support

Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership (Part 2)

What Works Cities
9 min readNov 13, 2019


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

By Molly Daniell and Zachary Markovits

In part one of this series, we laid the groundwork for how data-driven city leaders establish clear expectations around their organizations’ use of data and, in doing so, set a clear vision for an evidence-based culture.

Once that guiding vision is set, executive leaders are in a unique role to act on creating change that lasts beyond their time in city hall. In our work with cities across the country, we have seen what can happen when leaders are disciplined and willing to follow through with actions that support efforts to change institutional culture toward the use of data and evidence. After all, effective leadership requires action, not just the promise of action.

So, what are the actions that leaders can take to implement their data-centric vision?

In this installment, we explore the role of strategic delegation and support — and in particular, three specific actions — in creating a sustainable data culture. We also share examples of each action in practice and a concrete next step that executive leaders can take to get started.

1: Think creatively — and cross-functionally — when building your data team

Any executive leader who wants robust data-informed decision-making to become the way of business in their city will need to build a team that is tasked with leading the effort and implementing the vision. Critically, these teams must buy into the mission of building a culture of “leading with data” and be empowered by leadership with the ownership of and responsibility for achieving a data-driven culture within the organization. Imagine this group as the city’s “Special Forces” data unit — a specialized group of people that are brought together to accomplish a specific, complex set of goals on an ongoing basis.

Some cities may be in a position where they can hire new full-time employees or repurpose vacant positions. This will likely be important to do at some point, but assembling a specialized data unit, however, does not require immediately hiring new or full-time staff, nor does it require the creation of a new data division or department. Across the country, many Mayors or City Managers start building their data teams by looking to current staff across various departments to bring together cross-functional data and analytic teams.

By leading this kind of cross-functional team out of the Mayor’s, City Manager’s, or other C-Suite office, this centrally-led but de-centrally operated data team can be created without adding additional staff, often by shifting ten to fifteen percent of multiple full-time employees’ workload to focus on data priorities. They are also well-positioned to expand the reach, scale, and depth of data practices throughout city hall, seeding the desired culture shifts throughout the organization within the context of work that is ongoing. As such, this is not only good practice, but building a team in this way will help to ensure that your city’s existing talent and resources are effectively used.

Executive leaders who have taken this approach have started in various ways: some have surveyed their department heads, while others have asked for volunteers or have started with the highest performing staff in the organization. Once this team has begun their work, however, it is important to formalize each city staffer’s role on the data team so that the importance of the work is not diminished. By updating a job description, assigning data-aligned performance goals, or, if possible, providing a small stipend, an executive leader is able to demonstrate their commitment to this work and signal that this team is vital to the organization’s strategy.

Building a Cross-Functional Data Team In Action: Scottsdale, AZ

The Scottsdale team celebrating achieving What Works Cities Certification at the silver level

In Scottsdale, a silver What Works Cities certified city, leadership has built a culture that believes that data-driven governance is “not 100 percent of anyone’s job, but it’s part of everyone’s job.” This shift has been driven through the use of cross-functional teams that are explicitly tasked with changing Scottsdale city government into one driven by insights, rather than intuition. One of these teams is led by Cindi Eberhardt. While her primary role is city volunteer program manager, Eberhardt has taken on the added responsibility to lead a group of people across the city on integrating behavioral insights into the decision-making of their departments. This team borrows capacity and talent from people in various departments such as housing, the police, communications, solid waste, and others without devoting anyone full-time to the projects it undertakes.

Getting Started: Identify the talent that already exists —the data analyst, the GIS specialist, the CRM project manager, the purchasing manager, the public works director, etc. Deputies and other managing staff will know who on their teams are energized by the work of data-informed decision-making and can pull them into a team focused on growing and embedding the use of data-informed decision-making.

2: Give your data team the tools to succeed

Once the team is assembled, executive leadership is responsible for ensuring that the team has the tools it needs to successfully achieve the desired results — notably the training and development that people need to do their work effectively. It’s not enough to bring staff together and form a team; paramount to success are the actions that leadership takes to foster an environment of continuous learning and improvement.

Zachary Manz (left) and Major Youngblood (right) from Irving, TX with a printed out version of the data best practices outlined in the What Works Cities Assessment

For example, in Irving, TX, City Manager Chris Hillman wanted to ensure that staff had the same baseline information regarding performance reporting. To that end, he provided the time and space for all staff in certain roles and departments to take the What Works Cities Academy course “Getting Started with Performance Analytics.” Purposefully creating team skill-building opportunities like these helps to create a common language, provide data stewards with ways to socialize key concepts across the organization, and create a sense of vision for a team towards the larger organizational goals.

Like putting together a data team, investing in that team’s skills does not immediately require a new outlay of money. Rather, understanding the strengths of the people within the organization and giving them the agency and time to tap into existing resources can go a long way. Leaders may consider tasking a staff member or two to look to local and national networks to pull together suites of inexpensive or free resources. University partners, non-profits, other local city governments, and the city’s Human Resources department are frequent allies for sharing and disseminating learning resources and opportunities.

Supporting Skill Development In Action: South Bend, IN

In South Bend, the Business Analytics team put together a skills matrix that provided guidance in core skill areas that business analysts should have and/or continually develop. The skills matrix allowed team members — new and existing — to build up to at least an intermediate level in all areas. The team was not expected to be “advanced” in every area, but instead, it provided a north star across a multitude of skills that team members could be attentive to over time, and served as a foundation for ongoing performance and professional development conversations. The team also created a Training Repository with tools and training resources (see below) that were aligned with the skill areas and levels in the Skills Matrix — many of which were resources that were provided by various community partners at little or no cost to South Bend.

The South Bend Business Analytics team’s Training Repository

Getting Started: Deploy a skills assessment survey for departmental employees (or align with your Human Resources department’s existing process) to understand the baseline of existing skills, identify gaps, elevate talent, and task your data team with sourcing capacity-building opportunities that align with your organization’s needs. One free resource that exists to help cities take stock of their organizational data capacity is the What Works Cities Assessment; while not an individual skills assessment, this resource helps cities identify opportunities where there is a need to grow their team’s capacity around data best practices and where they might leverage existing organizational talent.

3: Empower your team to speak for you

On top of skills development, it is critical to elevate the authority and mission of the specialized data team among their colleagues and employees. While there are important actions a chief executive can take to signal organizational commitment to change, striking the right balance between these actions and making sure staff have the agency to take ownership of their work is an essential ingredient for leading change effectively. Empower the data team by granting them the authority to speak on behalf of leadership, make critical decisions, and address the biggest issues that allow for the dissemination of culture and vision.

Another critical action that signals the value of this team is to have them— or the team’s lead — report directly to executive leadership. By establishing a schedule for periodic, regular briefings to assess evidence of culture change, where there might be pockets of institutional resistance or inertia, bright spots to be recognized, and opportunities for growth, leaders can ensure that this assembled data team has the space and permission to operate as honest brokers who offer candid feedback to leadership and consistently elevate the priority of this work.

In cities where leaders have not only given staff the authority and agency to make decisions but have also clearly communicated to the rest of the organization that the team is empowered to do so, changing organizational culture has often been accelerated and met with less friction.

Team Empowerment In Action: New Orleans, LA

Former Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu (middle-left)

In New Orleans, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, through his words and actions, would lend authority and weight to his data team, which was housed within the Office of Performance and Accountability. He would, for example, walk into meetings with department directors across the City/Parish and introduce Oliver Wise, his Director of the Office of Performance and Accountability, by saying, “This is Oliver, you should assume that whatever he asks you to do comes directly from me.” Mayor Landrieu would consistently reinforce that message of authority, responsibility, and role, and in doing so, created the space the team needed to carry out — and lead — the work.

Getting Started: Use existing meetings to state the role, authority, and mission of the specialized data unit to all department directors. Use existing meetings to state the role, authority, and mission of the specialized data unit to all department directors and division heads. Set the expectation through direct requests that data-rich departments (e.g. Public Works, Police, etc.) work especially close with and support the data unit.

What’s Next?

People are indispensable, and leaders cannot effectively build a lasting data culture without strategically building the team and ensuring that team is set up for success. In addition to the strategic delegation actions discussed above, modeling disciplined decision-making and investing in data round out what leaders can do to implement their visions.

Of course, the actions taken to lead change are inevitably informed by and depend on the city or town’s unique context, structure, and priorities. But, we have seen high leverage actions such as these to be particularly helpful in moving city hall to a data-driven culture.

In this series’ next installment, we’ll explore how modeling disciplined decision-making and consistency in utilizing new data infrastructure can lead city employees into broader citywide action.

[Don’t miss the next installment of “Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership” by signing up for the What Works Cities newsletter.]

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.

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.