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Planning for the Long-Term: Creating a Lasting Data-Driven Culture in City Hall

Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership (Part 5)

This is the fifth and final 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. Read our previous installments: Part One, Part Two , Part Three, and Part Four.

Imagine living in New York City without the buses or subway. Imagine living in Phoenix without trash pick-up. Imagine Baltimore without 311 or Saint Paul without the ability to plow the streets. These city services have withstood election cycles, waves of staff retirements, and generally, are considered politically unthinkable to dismantle. These services are so essential, so embedded into the DNA of local government that no one would actively campaign to take them away.

For data-informed policymakers seeking to plan for the long-term, the critical question is: How can decision-making based on data and evidence become as indispensable as a service like trash pick-up?

Data-informed governments deliver better outcomes for residents. But even well-functioning systems vanish if their value is not quickly realized or internalized by those who would benefit from them. For example, in our work with cities through What Works Cities, we routinely see that in the wake of elections, staff positions are repurposed, work streams are halted, priorities are redeveloped, and previously stable funding streams become increasingly uncertain. New city manager appointments, critical retirements, or in some cases, even changeover of council members can have a similar effect. And, as immediate needs and priorities compete for staff time, long term sustainability can be routinely and systematically de-prioritized.

The past four installments of Mastering the Fundamentals of Leadership have focused on how a leader can build and run a data practice in their city government. This final installment focuses on how to keep this culture going long after a founding leader departs from their role, and makes the case for taking an incremental approach to sustainability of data practice.

In this resource, we will unpack the following five key strategies that cities can use to bolster long-term data sustainability:

  1. Regularly articulate the value of data-informed government in simple, clear language;
  2. Prioritize telling your data story & maintain running talking points of accomplishments;
  3. Invest in cultivating a coalition of data users inside City Hall and in the community;
  4. Codify the citywide use of data; and
  5. Plan for the organizational positioning that makes sense for your context.

NOTE: These five strategies are not exhaustive, but offer a springboard for what works along with examples of cities that have prepared for and gone through significant leadership changes.

1: Articulating the Value Simply and Clearly

In part one of this series, we highlighted how leaders that articulate a vision for their government are best at building the teams they aspire to have. When it comes to sustaining a city’s “data team,” articulating the team’s value to the city and the community is equally important.

To do this, focus on language that is accessible, grounded, and answers the “so what.” Avoid data jargon wherever possible. For example, say things like “this policy will make sure your private information isn’t made public” instead of “data security policy.” Data-informed practices are too often described in highly-technical or operational terms which can inadvertently alienate potential advocates and get people to gloss over real success.

New Orleans, LA, for example, has focused deeply on identifying jargon-free language to articulate why data and analytics mattered for local government staff. The city’s Office for Accountability and Performance drafted user-friendly departmental guides to ensure colleagues understood how performance and analytics can actually streamline workload, and to clarify how the Office’s scope of services could support them in their services for the community. Building on the efforts of the New Orleans team, other cities like San Francisco, CA, Boston, MA, and Kansas City, MO also adopted the approach of presenting value in the form of accessible “scopes of services.” Scottsdale, AZ even includes mission, goals, and values language in its departmental guides and trainings that center the city’s data-driven performance management work.

The next step cities can take is to articulate the value — and impact — of this work through the specific values that the greater community has indicated are important. The City of Madison, WI, for example, directly asked residents how they wanted the city to grow in the process of updating its comprehensive development plan, Imagine Madison. Residents reported that “affordable housing in corridors with access to transit, schools, parks, libraries, neighborhood centers, and other amenities” were important priorities for them. Madison’s data staff recognized how important the Imagine Madison process was for the city, and so they tied performance to the needs of residents.

“One of the smartest things we did is tying performance to our comprehensive plan. This plan was reflective of what residents indicated as their needs and we could stay laser focused on adding value there.” — Laura Larsen, Budget & Program Evaluation Manager, City of Madison, WI

The power of getting this right opens the door to a broader coalition of unlikely advocates and users both inside City Hall and beyond.

2: Prioritize Telling The Data Story & Keep Talking Points

Stories illuminate and underscore the context, urgency, and outcomes of a city’s data-driven decision-making beyond a clear articulation of the value. Communities care about working street lights and clean sidewalks, not necessarily the 311 system that makes repairs possible and oftentimes easier. City staff care about mitigating flooding and reducing blight, not performance meetings or dashboards. For city leadership, storytelling shows how investment of time and resources into data practices help to fulfill the promise to “do better” — and in turn better cements data strategies. The power of developing a “public narrative,” as Marshall Ganz, Rita T. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, describes it, centers stories in the creation of shared values and dealing in the domain of the heart. Stories — as opposed to strategy — engage and motivate.

“If we are not bringing obvious and clear value to departments then we are not doing our job. Internal staff are our primary customers and our best advocates — much better than we could ever be.” — Katheryn Johnston, Budget Officer, Office of Management and Budget, Tacoma WA

To enable better storytelling, city leaders should first task their data teams with collecting, refining, and sharing stories of impact that illustrate how government — when it is performing at its highest level — can deliver on the social contract. For example cities and towns like Gilbert, AZ have created a narrative around their efforts to take stock of progress, make improvements, and tell the story of what matters for residents through data. Kansas City, MO’s DataKC team has a story-driven annual report and includes data storytelling as a core service. The City of Detroit, MI went as far as creating a first of its kind Chief Storyteller position — institutionalizing the role and signaling the long standing importance of this position.

After encouraging teams to begin collecting stories, city leaders can then empower staff at all levels of government to regularly communicate progress or celebrate small wins internally. Everyone has the ability to become a message carrier and storyteller. While this is a skillset often housed in a city’s communications department, cities have recently started to explicitly build data storytelling skillsets into job descriptions, budget processes, and performance reviews.

Kansas City, MO’s Mayor Quinton Lucas regularly uses social media to share the data from the city’s annual resident survey in an approachable way.

The next step is to build out opportunities between staff and elected officials that align around storytelling. Kansas City’s DataKC team regularly uses their quarterly resident survey to help their Mayor show residents how they are doing and responding to conditions on the ground.

Josh Edwards, Assistant City Manager in Athens-Clarke, GA, suggests bringing staff to Council retreats and preparing staff with prompting questions such as: How do you show who you are and what you’re trying to do for your elected officials? How do you arm them with stories for their constituents?

Lastly, create a catalogue of impact stories to ensure that future administrations can either pick up where previous ones left off, or ensure they don’t lose processes that can support their own goals. Syracuse, NY’s former Chief Data Officer, Sam Edelstein, developed the practice of maintaining a Google Doc with ready to go examples of positive impact for the community as a result of data-informed decision-making. The local paper, interested in this form of governance, started reporting these examples of the team’s success. When the next mayoral election began, then-candidate Ben Walsh included in his platform the use of data as a key component of his candidacy and since his election, Mayor Walsh has invested in additional positions for the data team (e.g. a data engineer, data project manager, and data analyst). Once the pandemic hit, this team was integral to the city’s quick response, including building a map of the city showing where food sites were placed in reference to students living in poverty once school closure took place.

3: Cultivate a Coalition of Data Users

City data practices that have sustained transitions in leadership almost always have a dedicated and vocal set of users that care about it continuing. It is much harder to eliminate progress in developing data capacity if there are lots of people using it as a part of their daily business. Developing a fan base will ensure a sustainable future for your data practices.

In previous installments of this series, we discussed how important it is to build and then cement a data team by investing in their development. Any sustainable city-data practice requires more than just a handful of people within a city to execute on data work; it requires internal and external allies and practitioners that are committed to doing more, to being more data-driven. The best data leaders thoughtfully engage, include, and collaborate with people both inside and outside of government.

“Exceptional leadership matters but it’s not catastrophic when you don’t have it. There tends to be an overestimation of the Mayor’s influence. Once you’ve been able to penetrate the staff level, it will take years to move away from that.” — Santiago Garces, Director of Innovation and Performance, Pittsburgh, PA

Leaders can begin coalition building early in their work by mapping out the landscape of internal stakeholders. Consider who should be part of a regular ongoing conversation and be sure to look beyond the same group of internal data stakeholders (i.e. this is not just IT’s domain, but everyone’s) and to the program people who produce a lot of data as part of their daily workflow.

Push to consider not just the folks who interact with data regularly, but also those who are responsible for collecting data and the people who are responsible for oversight and decision-making. With a lens toward continuous improvement, many cities have taken steps to develop routine practices of gathering feedback from staff on their experiences engaging with its data practices. For example, the City of Tulsa, OK established check-in questions for all departments and data stewards to better understand what is already working well and where there are significant opportunities for improvement. Kansas City, MO worked with Results for America to lead a formal stakeholder interview process to better understand needs, concerns, and opportunities as part of DataKC, their data hub program.

“Expand externally so that the public will rely on the data, and demand that the programs be continued so they can continue using it for their own purposes. Demand will continue to create the supply.” — Former Mayor Sly James, Kansas City, MO

Focusing on external stakeholders is equally important. Consider important city partners such as council members, local reporters, community-based organizations, fiscal stewardship stakeholders, workforce boards, education boards, nonprofit leaders, union leaders, business influencers and leaders. Cities are also increasingly working with community-led ‘good governance’ coalitions. In the example of New Orleans, LA their good governance coalition requested that then-Mayor-elect Cantrell sign a performance and good governance pledge to ensure continuity of practice.

4: Codify a Citywide Use of Data

A city’s ability to use data is an extraordinary asset, providing a critical and unbiased decision-making support system for buttressing a leader’s credibility when tough choices need to be made. Unfortunately, progress in this work is fragile and often at the mercy of a new administration. Some cities seeking to more deeply imbue data and evidence as a core component of governing — like 311 or trash pick-up — have turned to working with their city council on codifying a data ordinance to ensure continuity of practice. Kansas City, MO worked to get such a data ordinance passed. The ordinance codifies the necessity of a transparent and accountable way of reporting progress on the city’s priorities, and specifically links to the citywide business plan. It also ensures that some kind of infrastructure must be present to do data work.

5: Organizational Positioning

One of the top questions we get is: “Now that I’ve started my data team, where do I house it so that it will keep going (and growing) after this administration?”

The best fit in terms of organizational reporting and structure is a highly strategic and context-driven choice — and may even shift with time. Many cities incubate a data and analytics team within the Mayor’s Office, but with an eye toward long-term sustainability, spinning it out into its own division. Others start it within a Budget, Finance, or Planning division, and then shift to reporting into the City Manager.

Finding the right home requires a balancing of risk and reward. Some cities prefer to house data analytics under departmental leadership as that tends to be more stable. Other cities prefer the immediate influence and higher-profile that comes from being housed under the executive office. Some cities consider the best answer to reporting and structure to be wherever they can be best positioned to have full access to enterprise data. However, reporting structures for Chief Data Officers are increasingly converging toward being housed in the executive suite and reporting directly into the Mayor or City Manager — and starkly away from reporting into a Chief Technology or Chief Information Officer.

Boston, MA’s Citywide Analytics Team was relocated to the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), because of the resources available in the department as well as the fact that the department already handled most of the city’s data. This reduced the technical barriers to accessing data and meant that the team already had access to many of the city’s data-generating systems.

Tulsa, OK’s Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation was shifted into the city’s Budget Department after years of incubating it in the Mayor’s office. Although this separated it from the Mayor’s immediate priorities, it allowed the team to tie data and performance directly to budgeting and solidified the funding mechanism in the city so that it became a more permanent fixture in the city’s operation.

Where to house your central data team has no one answer, (and we don’t have a blanket recommendation), but any structure needs to both ensure that a data team can be responsive to the needs of a city and while also being protected from any administration that comes to attack this system. In most cases, this means starting a data practice in a chief executive’s office before finding a “home” for the team in a relevant department.

Mastered the Fundamentals: Urban data practices in its third decade (and beyond)

The original version of CitiStat, the data and performance management approach to city governance, launched in Baltimore, MD in June of 2020 with just one department. Now, just over 20 years later, cities across the country are still building, iterating, and implementing their own versions of how data can drive reform in cities and realize the vision of better government for residents.

But like CitiStat, which was envisioned, introduced, and cemented through then Mayor Martin O’Malley, this future state of government requires leadership that is committed to change and wants their cities to do more, better and faster. The Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership series has been designed for leaders who want to see that change happen in their community; those that are unsatisfied with governing from their guts and want to know how to implement what has been proven to work elsewhere.

This series also acknowledges that Mayors, City Managers, and community leaders need to build on the successes of leaders who came before them to have sustainable progress in making a government that works for everyone. At a high level, the steps we lay out for change are simple — articulate a vision, act on that vision, and create pathways to sustain that vision — it’s successful and sustainable implementation that is so hard.

The good news is: your city is not alone.

Hundreds of city leaders across the country are changing course to prioritize and build toward evidence-based policymaking. Here at What Works Cities, we are committed to sharing lessons and best practices along the way regardless of whether your city is just getting started or has been pursuing this work for years. We’re excited to explore the next few decades in urban leadership along with you.

Next Steps, Additional Readings, & Action Items

Ready to put what you’ve learned in this series into practice?

Join WWC for our workshop titled: Cultivating a Sustainable and Durable Data-Informed Government on November 2, 2020. During this digital workshop, members of the WWC City Progress team will guide interested city staff through exercises to identify barriers to leveraging data as a strategic asset, and brainstorm solutions with their peers. Registration is now open.

Interested in looking back? Check out the previous installments of the Mastering the Fundamentals of Data-Informed Leadership series:

1: Lean Forward, Articulate a Vision, and Take Action

2: Moving from Vision to Action: Strategic Delegation & Support

3: Moving from Vision to Action: How to Not Ghost Your Data Program

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

Molly Daniell is Associate Director of City Progress for What Works Cities.

Zachary Markovits is the Director of City Progress for the What Works Cities.

Cities that take the time to complete a What Works Cities Assessment become members of the WWC community and have the opportunity to receive coaching support to identify a plan to update your decision-making frame and align it with the evidence.

In addition to coaching support, cites also have access to critical performance management courses in the WWC Academy (account required) to jumpstart decision-making.

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