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By Stephen Goldsmith

Last week, Bloomberg Philanthropies released a brief on “The City Hall Data Gap,” which analyzed the applications to the What Works Cities program and concluded that “a wide gap exists between cities’ desire and their ability to implement data- and evidence-based practices.” There are still significant barriers to the use of data in cities: applicants cited factors including lack of staff and revenue resources, limited knowledge and expertise in this area, lack of trust in the data currently generated by city systems, and old and incompatible systems for data collection and analysis.

I have been working for decades to promote innovation in government. In my time serving in city government as well as my work at Harvard Kennedy School, I have observed these and more obstacles -- as well as heroic efforts to overcome them. The successes we have seen from leading cities in using data to improve the lives of their residents prove that data efforts are not only possible, but imperative. These inspiring stories, from New York City preventing fire deaths to Chicago avoiding foodborne illness, have reanimated the conversation about effective government. The value proposition of using data to make government work better has never been clearer: 40% of eligible midsized cities applied within six weeks of the What Works Cities program launch. We have reached a critical moment in the field, where data-driven government is now a focus for cities of all sizes and budgets.

The successes we have seen from leading cities in using data to improve the lives of their residents prove that data efforts are not only possible, but imperative.

As more cities embark on the path to data-driven governance, they should keep the following keys to success in mind:

  • Focus on outcomes: Performance measurement often focuses on counting activities, such as number of shelter beds, rather than measuring outcomes, such as reducing homelessness. An outcomes focus will help shift the city’s work from achieving incremental benefits to unlocking value in a more transformative way. Getting the metrics right from the start is critical to setting benchmarks and proving results.
  • Build a narrative: The narrative around data-driven improvements is critical for managing stakeholders and ensuring buy-in. When cities start to measure what works, they need to translate efficiency measures into meaningful, outcome-oriented results -- such as better, stronger neighborhoods, not just cost savings.
  • Change structural incentives:  Too often, the existing structures of government hamper creative ideas. Cities should identify the structural incentives in the system, such as a lack of revolving funds, and reform them to unlock creativity and innovation. It is also important to empower employees to use discretion. Accountability-based rules are outdated in today’s world, where data enables a focus on outliers.
  • Learn from others: Cities across the country are tackling similar problems with a variety of creative responses. Mayors should learn from the results achieved by their peers and the body of evidence produced by historical efforts, and any new project should start with a horizon scan to identify others to learn from. This will also help ensure that limited resources are invested in what works. Cities should also take advantage of their local data ecosystems, nonprofits and universities with expertise in data, and programs such as What Works Cities.

With these tactics, cities can help create value for their residents and unlock the potential of responsive governance through the informed use of data and evidence.

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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