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Moving from Vision to Action: The Case (and Tips) for Investing in Data and Evidence to “Build Back Better”

Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership (Part 4)

What Works Cities
9 min readMay 29, 2020

This is the fourth 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

The 2008 economic recession shocked and reshaped the public sector, with more than 585,000 state and local public sector jobs lost between 2008 and 2013 across the country. In the midst of a high-stakes financial crisis, local government staff were left with the hefty leadership task of stepping up for their communities with substantially depleted resources and capacity.

Reconciling the reality of needing to “do more with less,” many city leaders saw an opportunity to focus on efficiency, performance, and more fully embrace a new model of data-informed service delivery and decision-making. City leaders began to confront the gap between their existing limitations and the need to deliver services effectively, efficiently, and equitably. Together, city leaders and their teams dug into this demand for innovative problem solving to build back stronger, and initiatives like What Works Cities were there to partner with cities to support them as they rose to meet the moment and its challenges.

Now, just over a decade after the recession, cities are being confronted by another highly catastrophic circumstance. Local governments are facing another fiscal cliff as their communities grapple with the swift and extraordinary consequences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike in 2008, however, many local governments entered the COVID-19 crisis having spent the last few years investing newly recovered revenue into the strategic use of data and evidence to drive their governance.

We see how many of the cities that are most nimbly managing their responses to an evolving crisis are those that have built data-informed cultures and invested in robust data practices. With data-informed decision-making cultures and systems in place, these cities are deploying potentially life-saving interventions that are based in evidence, making smarter, more innovative decisions through existing data processes, and rapidly spinning up real-time mechanisms for the timely sharing of critical insights with residents. And, we expect that the investment in this capacity will lead to better-informed decisions, more targeted responses, and critically fewer casualties.

In the last few installments of this series, we focused on how city leaders can repurpose existing staff, resources, and even their own priorities to start to build a data-informed culture in their organization. But at a certain point, leaders will have to figure out how to invest real dollars in new positions or systems to lead this work.

City leaders whose goal is to build their communities back safely and stronger can look to this exceptional COVID-19 moment as a powerful reminder to double down on their commitment to data and evidence as an indispensable tool for driving positive change. Even in times when budgets are in crisis, the actions leaders take to prepare for investments in staff, new tools, or new processes will visibly demonstrate their commitment to a way of governing that goes beyond a memo or verbal communication. It turns a vision into action, and action into resilience.

Investing in People

As discussed previously, a city can start building a specialized data team by bringing together communities of practice that, collectively, can solve problems. But all too often, cities gain traction and showcase impressive results through the grit and talent of a passionate few, only to have the work deflated as leadership ambitions grow without the resources to match.

When a city’s needs grow larger than what can be cobbled together from small percentages of multiple staff members’ time, it’s time to focus on investing in data staff as a fundamental — not supplemental — part of the city’s success. This recommendation may seem impossible given the direction current city budgets are trending, but a resilient city must be able to measure, take stock, and act, particularly when challenges arise.

Sample job description provided by the Centers for Civic Impact.

Our advice is to start small and be flexible. Even if now is not the right time, as you plan for recovery, consider bringing a new Chief Data Officer or lead analyst (take a look at this draft job description from our colleagues at the Centers for Civic Impact) to oversee a cross-cutting team to start. This can be an enabling experience and open up opportunities to tackle more complex, inter-sectional problems than ever before. Start with the immediate needs, but always with an eye towards long-term strategy.

Having specialized data leads in place is an increasingly irreplaceable asset for tackling a crisis. For example, in Cincinnati, OH, as more cities around the country began actively responding to the coronavirus, the City Manager suspended the standard operations of their Office of Performance and Data Analytics team and repurposed their work to support all efforts in planning and responding to COVID-19. In a memo to staff, the City Manager, citing the team’s experience working across all 27 city departments, transferred the team’s function and skill in “developing innovative solutions, developing data-driven reports and conducting routine performance monitoring” to ensure that “the City has a coordinated preparation and response to COVID-19 and is nimble in standing up new processes to meet our ever-changing operations.”

Investing In Action: Paterson, NJ

Under Mayor Andre Sayegh’s leadership, Paterson established a two-person “innovation team” that he tasked with building an internal data culture and using data research to make city government more cost-efficient. The team — a chief innovation officer and a chief data officer — report directly to the mayor. Notably, the Mayor ensured that the city made these hires in spite of a tight fiscal environment through an unprecedented partnership with local philanthropy and academia to jointly fund the position for a three year period.

As a result, the city, led by the CDO, had the capacity to act quickly and strategically once COVID-19 hit its community. The CDO coordinated data feeds from a variety of city departments and medical partners (i.e. Health, Fire & Emergency, Police and St Joseph’s Regional Medical center) to build a public-facing COVID-19 tracker dashboard that is kept updated on a daily basis.

In addition, the CDO serves as the program manager and database manager for Neighbor Express, Paterson, a service that allows seniors to order groceries and have volunteers do the shopping and deliver to the senior’s place of residence. This led to a larger cross-sector collaboration focused on developing a Food Insecurity Index for Passaic County at a Census Tract level, using ACS data, to help nonprofits in service delivery.

Investing in Systems

Investments in infrastructure and systems must match the ambition of the city’s vision to make data-informed, strategic decisions across the entire enterprise. The city may have structural issues and antiquated systems that prevent data sharing even between departments. Staff can feel unclear about leadership’s priorities when they are being held accountable for the challenges of legacy systems that are out of their control. Crisis situations add to the risk, especially if decisions to purchase or create new systems are being made in haste or in reaction to existing systems that cannot sufficiently provide a leader the information that he/she needs.

Start with the “must-haves”, then think about the tools to get there. Investing in powerful technology can transform the way that an organization does business and serves residents — but with increasingly tighter budgets, a technology first approach is not the only way forward. There’s a lot that can be done in Excel or with free help from others to set your systems up for future use!

Governments that are interested in accessing the U.S. Digital Response team’s free volunteer network of experts can complete a Request for Help form to be matched.

However, once a team, a department, or a city reaches the limitations of their current tools or systems, investing in new technology should not be verboten. As seen in the mid-2010s, beginning a data practice can be accomplished with little to minimal financial investment. Yet, boot-strapping can only go so far. In the context of COVID-19, the opportunity cost of not investing in systems is starkly on display. Once one has identified a clear need, it’s time to invest.

Investing In Action: Miami, FL

Mayor Francis Suarez’s goal to transform Miami into a global technology and innovation leader was hamstrung by the city’s legacy data systems that make working with, and making decisions based on their data nearly impossible. They already had some existing roles, such as a Strategic Planning and Performance Manager; the city’s performance data needs, however, were far outpacing what these few people could do. So leadership sought to invest and positioned the city for a new 21st century enterprise data system and new staff via a senior data fellow to assume the duties of a chief data officer and to lead the city’s enterprise wide data effort.

With this investment, the city was able to engage in a deep dive innovation and analysis project regarding challenges faced by small businesses. This proved to be invaluable as the city’s recovery efforts prioritize a large-scale push to bring business services, such as a Certificate of Use and business tax receipts, all online. This started with the Mayor charging the city with the goal of enabling entrepreneurs to be able to open up businesses from their phone. In the wake of COVID, “online” is now the new default and departments are able to make better informed, user-centered decisions as a result of this earlier analysis.

In addition, the city is now able to track the shift in the department’s activities post-COVID to inform rapid response opportunities and virtual workflows. Their senior data fellow manages this and creates a new executive report that tracks this shift via a suite of metrics.

Investing in the Future…in Building Back Better

“Once in a lifetime” crises, like COVID-19, may seem few and far in between, but catastrophic events like these are more likely to occur than cities typically anticipate, or plan for. Industry shifts, recessions, climate crises (such as hundred-year floods, devastating wildfires, and unprecedented droughts), cyber-attacks, and pandemics are, unfortunately, increasingly more frequent and take a toll on the best-laid plans for the future.

What game-changing leaders do, however, is follow the data, learn from the past, and invest in the future. They recognize that even in times of crisis, a budget is not only a priority-setting exercise, it’s a moral commitment to one’s team, one’s larger workforce, and one’s residents. During and after a crisis, no leader can know what the new normal will be once we all get to the other side, but we can help to create the future we want to see by investing in the people, systems, and processes that can help a city serve residents as best as possible.

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.