Image via Steven Lelham on Unsplash

Sprinting to a Well-Managed City

Stories of cities setting and achieving their goals through What Works Cities Sprints

By Madeleine Weatherhead

When it comes to building effective, data-driven governments that improve the lives of its residents, seeing measurable improvements in culture and capacity can sometimes feel drawn out — like a marathon.

But through our work with cities, we’ve seen that sustained success is often a process that builds on one small win after another, reached through the setting and achieving of a series of well-coordinated, incremental goals. Instead of a marathon, cities are running a long-distance relay — passing the baton from one stakeholder, executive leader, city staff member, or local partner to the next in a series of sprints that moves the whole community toward the finish line.

In January of 2019, What Works Cities launched What Works Cities Sprints — two- to eight-week-long virtual learning opportunities designed specifically to help cities advance on data practices that are foundational to a well-managed city in a short period of time. Sprints provide cities the chance to work alongside experts from the What Works Cities network of expert partners and a cohort of their peers looking to make progress on the same foundational data practices, and apply those practices to address a concrete problem by the end of each Sprint.

Through the nine What Works Cities Sprints held this year, we’ve worked with more than 300 local government staff from over 75 local governments on a wide range of foundational data practices. From randomized control trials to open data policies, communicating more effectively with residents to building RFPs for vendors that produce better results, setting up a data governance team to creating an open data program built for the needs of the residents that cities are aiming to serve, the work tackled this year through Sprints has reached people and practices in every department of government and focused on priorities that matter to local government staff and residents alike.

Here at What Works Cities, we’re excited to celebrate the great progress that cities have made in a relatively short period of time by sharing a few examples of the hard work being achieved through Sprints from this year.

An Email Trial in Cambridge, MA

Developed and facilitated by the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), a What Works Cities expert partner, the six-week-long Trial ‘in a Box’ Sprint was designed to provide cities with the methods and step-by-step information on how to run a randomized trial to test a re-designed email communication and to ensure that cities that successfully completed the Sprint would achieve three foundational data practices.

Dan Riviello, the City of Cambridge’s 311 Project Manager, and his team joined two other cities and BIT in this inaugural Sprint to address a challenge specific to their city. As a way to provide timely communication to its residents and keep them informed of important city matters, Cambridge had been emailing a newsletter to 3,800+ residents and city staff each week. With crucial information in each message, the city had long prioritized increasing recipient engagement with the newsletter email, but continued to struggle with low engagement rates with the embedded surveys in the newsletters. The Cambridge team also wanted feedback from their residents to know if the content they were presenting in the emails were useful and if there was additional information they could include that residents would like to see.

Cambridge’s weekly email newsletter for residents

Through the Trial ‘in a Box’ Sprint, Cambridge worked with BIT to design, implement, and analyze results for an email trial focused on increasing open rates for the email and completion rates for the embedded survey. They sent their redesigned emails and found that compared with the standard “CityView Weekly” with the date in the subject line, emails with a behaviorally informed call to action in the subject line, “What Would YOU Like to See from CityView Weekly?” doubled the survey completion rate on average — a result that allowed Cambridge to gather valuable information and produce a weekly email that better served the needs of their residents.

Communicating Progress in Walnut Creek, CA

In the Comms for Cities Sprint, cities worked with communications experts at Results for America (RFA), another What Works Cities expert partner, over the course of four weeks to build their local government’s capacity to use data and evidence to publicly communicate the impact of their city’s programs. The specific goal of this Sprint was for participants to begin using communications as a tool to build trust between the city and its residents, including taking concrete steps to communicate ongoing progress, as well as a city’s successes.

After joining Comms for Cities, Jessica Cole, Head of Innovation and Economic Development for the City of Walnut Creek, began exploring ways to communicate with Walnut Creek residents about the city’s data-driven decisions. She found a compelling example in a particular piece of work that the city was already doing to collect data and track progress for a homeless outreach program that the city had been piloting in coordination with the Walnut Creek Police Department.

Walnut Creek, like many cities across the country, had been seeing an increase in the number of people in their community experiencing homelessness over the past few years. As one of the many ways that the city worked to better serve their homeless population, they began the Homeless Outreach Program (HOP) in June 2019 as a three-month pilot program where calls made to the police regarding issues related to homelessness were directed to two officers, instead of distributing the responses broadly across the police department.

HOP’s intention was for these two officers to proactively develop relationships with individuals who were homeless or transient, as well as with the community members calling in concerns and those providing services to the homeless. The city believed these efforts would allow them to better connect members of their homeless community with the response, support, and services needed.

Over time, the city expects that these efforts will lead to a difference in either the volume of calls for service or the total number of people in need of homeless services locally. To that end, the city has been working with multiple city agencies and tracking data from various sources to develop a more accurate and complete picture of HOP’s efforts and progress, and has decided to extend the pilot from the initial three months through the end of 2019.

The Comms for Cities Sprint taught participants the importance of publicly communicating progress towards the strategic goals that the city has set, along with specific ways of doing so. With that in mind, Cole brought HOP’s work to the city’s Communications team’s attention, and Walnut Creek has since worked toward communicating with residents how this pilot program is progressing by actively sharing their story through local media and communicating directly from city hall about the work and the impact the pilot has made thus far — for example, through public presentations made at City Council and Public Safety Committee meetings, as well as social media posts from Walnut Creek’s accounts that were in turn picked up by local online and news outlets. The city is now communicating how the city plans to extend this pilot program through next year based on its success.

These are just two of a number of stories that highlight the bite-sized, tangible goals that cities have set and achieved on their path to building sustained change to their data and decision-making culture. The Sprint model, with its time-bound goals and focused curriculum, sets cities up for success by providing the knowledge and tools they need to apply a specific data practice to a real world situation.

In the past year of implementing Sprints, we have learned a tremendous amount about what works in providing tactical, concrete support to cities looking to strengthen and build capacity around specific data best practices.

Sprints as a Solution

As we continue to evolve and grow our catalog of Sprints, and as we explore ways to expand the applicability of Sprints as a learning model, we are excited to explore issue-area focused Sprints. The peer-based, time-bound, and goal-driven characteristics of the Sprint would remain intact, but instead of bringing a cohort of cities together around a foundational data practice, the Sprint would bring them together around replicating and scaling a specific solution for a specific issue that has been tested by their peers.

For example, when the City of Durham, NC collected and analyzed data that showed that one in five of their residents had a suspended license, and that their lower-income residents and residents of color were disproportionately affected, their Innovation Team built a community effort to launch a program to identify and analyze potentially dismissible traffic charges and fees that caused the license suspensions, advocate for license suspension reform, and proactively engage and work with residents who would be eligible for license restoration.

Members of the DEAR Program Advisory Board

Since its launch in early 2018, the program has helped to dismiss over 50,000 traffic charges — none of which were for public safety risks such as reckless driving or driving under the influence — putting nearly 35,000 Durham residents on the path to having their licenses restored.

Now, in an upcoming issue-area focused Sprint called Ensuring Economic Opportunity for Residents Through Driver’s License Restoration and Reform: What Cities Can Do Now, What Works Cities will be partnering with experts from the Durham Innovation Team and the national advocacy organization Fines and Fees Justice Center to conduct a Sprint designed to help interested cities address the negative impact of license suspensions on their residents. Through this 10-week Sprint, cities will build a team of the necessary stakeholders and develop a plan to replicate the effective license restoration program and reform efforts made in Durham.

Register for this new issue-area focused Sprint on ending the negative impacts of driver’s license suspensions on city residents

As we close out the year, we want to commend these cities and others who have made a meaningful impact in their local governments this year through Sprints. We look forward to all of the work to come in 2020.

Madeleine Weatherhead is an Associate of Certification and Community at What Works Cities.

Have a success story from Sprints to share? We’d love to hear from you! Send an email to certification@whatworkscities.org.

For access to Sprints, complete a What Works Cities Assessment. Already completed an assessment and unsure of what your access code for the WWC Academy is? Reach out to govextraining@jhu.edu. You can register for upcoming Sprints here.

For questions regarding available learning opportunities, write Madeleine Weatherhead at madeleine@results4america.org. For assistance with the WWC Academy platform, reach out to govextraining@jhu.edu.

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