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By Stephen Goldsmith

This article originally appeared as part of a paper on What Works Cities’ Certification program. To download the paper as a PDF, please click here.

Last year, Jackson, Mississippi faced a challenge familiar to many cities: a need to make significant budget cuts while trying to preserve jobs and maintain service delivery. Because of Mayor Tony Yarber’s commitment to data and the city’s prior achievements in developing an open data portal and launching a performance management program, the solution was obvious: turn to data to restructure and repurpose funds.

Beginning in May 2016, four months before the budget season began, Jackson began a comprehensive effort to analyze its spending, programs, and results to identify opportunities for efficiencies. The team responsible consisted of directors, deputy directors, executive staff, fiscal officers, and on-the-ground support workers. This team worked with the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) through What Works Cities for technical assistance in data analysis.

With the help of GovEx, the city analyzed its budget in comparison to comparable cities and identified areas of disproportionate spending. GovEx also trained every departmental data coordinator and fiscal officer in how to analyze and visualize their own data with Tableau to enable ongoing data use. The city then used this work to analyze each department’s programs more granularly, which leveraged the city’s JackStats performance management framework to identify which were producing results aligned with the city’s priorities.

The city made changes in many departments based on the analysis. The Human & Cultural Services Department merged low-performing senior and child care centers with higher-performing ones. In other departments, staff positions related to underperforming programs were repurposed to higher-impact areas in order to avoid layoffs. The city also looked at departmental structures to identify existing functions that would be more efficient under the purview of another department, such as moving tree and limb removal from Parks and Recreation to Public Works, which owned the necessary equipment.

Mayor Yarber and his budget team saw record turnout at community outreach events related to the budget. Basing decisions on the data helped the Mayor and his senior staff have difficult conversations with departments and with the community. The dashboards and visualizations that the budget team used are available to the public and all departmental employees, ensuring that the data behind the decisions is transparent.

Justin Bruce, Director of Innovation and Performance, emphasized the progression of work with data that developed the capacity that made this effort possible. He said, “Open data allowed us to take data, clean it, work with it, and actually track progress and performance. JackStats helped us look at the data at a more granular level to show us why and how we are meeting goals.” The latest effort, he said, “allowed us to take performance management to a different level, not just looking at what we are doing but how efficiently and effectively we are accomplishing our goals.”

Jackson was able to cut its budget by 7.6% with this process. The city went from a $14 million deficit in 2014 to a $6 million surplus this fiscal year, in addition to creating a new reserve fund. The city plans to continue its priority-based budgeting and repurposing work in the same way going forward. Bruce said, “Every time we touch an issue that has data to guide the situation, we’re always going to do an analysis of that data and always going to determine what’s most effective and efficient and ultimately, what’s best for our citizens.”

This article was written in conjunction with Harvard Kennedy School’s Katherine Hillenbrand, Project Manager.

About the Project Director

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. His latest book is The Responsive City.

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