About What Works Cities

By Data-Smart City Solutions • July 17, 2017

If you want a snapshot of your physical health, you go to the doctor’s office for an annual checkup. So how does a local government know if its systems that govern how decisions get made are healthy? According to Jennifer Park, Director of Certification and Community for What Works Cities (WWC), cities should do a yearly “data checkup.” And the best way to conduct that checkup is through the What Works Cities Assessment. The assessment is the first step for any city wishing to understand where they stand against the national standard of excellence of What Works Cities Certification. The criteria in the assessment outline the people, processes, and policies that are key to a well-managed city, and evaluate how well cities are managed by measuring the extent to which leaders incorporate data and evidence in decision-making.

History of the Program:

The Certification program and corresponding report launched in April 2017, two years after the launch of the broader WWC initiative. Between 2015 and 2017, the WWC team worked with dozens of cities across the United States to understand how they leveraged data to address general decision-making and pressing challenges, so they could launch the Certification program as a direct response to city needs.

In the first three years of the initiative, WWC supported 100 mid-sized cities, helping them use data to define problems and make progress on crucial issues. Beyond assisting local governments with data application, WWC invested in each city's ability to develop and scale its internal data culture. That mission continues, and as a result the Certification program has evolved to further meet the needs of today's cities.

The What Works Cities Assessment was originally made up of 50 unique criteria grouped into six foundational practices. But in the spirit of constant innovation, the team turned to cities to learn more about their experience with the tool. After hearing cities’ desire for more tactical criteria, the Certification and Community team revised the criteria under the guidance of the WWC Certification Standard Committee—a cross-sector group of experts from over a dozen organizations that support cities. Now the WWC Assessment comprises 45 criteria grouped into eight foundational practice areas that are presently considered by experts to be grounded in tangible and fundamental government data best-practices.

Certification provides a framework for building the well-managed, data-driven local governments that leaders aspire to, and also sets benchmarks that they can use to evaluate their progress and impact year over year. The certification program is open to any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or more, and can offer personalized technical support for cities both large and small.

The Value in Benchmarking:

Certification is not focused on ranking cities, but rather allowing local governments to benchmark themselves, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan out a roadmap for improvement with the support of the WWC team. In 2020, 24 cities achieved What Works Cities Certification, and 2020 marks the first year that cities have reached Platinum level certification. For the cities that are up-and-coming leaders in embedding data and evidence use across departments, the WWC Certification Honor Roll status recognizes and celebrates these cities that are on the path to Certification.

But for Park, the most important measurement of certification’s value is in the 200 cities that are completing the What Works Cities Assessment despite not scoring near an award level; “the majority of them are scoring nowhere near Certification, but are using that report that we provide, with benchmarking data and next steps, to leverage the tools and resources they need within City Hall to be able to effectively do this work.”

In fact, Park is most proud of the fact that “200 cities have raised their hand and said, ‘We want to know how well we're doing’." And the cities that go through the assessment aren’t taking it as a one-off checkup; the governments that engage with WWC are committing to move across the Standard and build capacity in city government to do data-driven work. This consistency demonstrates the commitment that cities make to residents, not just to provide services but use data and evidence to produce quality services more quickly.

Map of the U.S. with Certified cities highlighted

Why Cities Should Participate:

Local governments that go through the What Works Cities Assessment will better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and also receive a customized path for improvement from WWC through a Certification report. This detailed diagnostic report “opens the gate” to a range of support through WWC, including online and in-person learning opportunities for all local government staff through the What Works Cities Academy; targeted technical assistance support; and participation in the City Solutions Sprints, which help cities replicate or scale programs and solutions from other cities.

Participating in the Certification program means that local governments have access to peers in hundreds of cities that are working on data best practices and Certification. So whether a city is going to score top marks on the 45 criteria or starting from scratch, taking that first step to identify strengths and weaknesses through this program means access to a network that can support and accelerate their work. City leaders don’t need to do everything on their own when participating in the WWC Certification program helps them understand where there's room to grow, and where they can access tools and resources from WWC expert partners .

“We think that every city should know how they're doing. And to know how you're doing, you should go through our What Works Cities Assessment.” Jennifer Park, Director of Certification and Community for What Works Cities