Read more articles by Betsy Gardner

By Betsy Gardner • July 9, 2019

This article originally appeared as part of a paper on What Works Cities’ Certification program.

Imagine doing an inventory of your city’s datasets and finding 1,400 pieces of information: application copies, old documents, Excel sheets, and digital records from 800 different databases. Sound daunting? That’s the exact position Sherry Schoonover, the Deputy IT Director for the City of Topeka, found herself in when she initiated the city’s data governance policy. Inundated with information and disparite practices, Schoonover knew that improving the city’s data guidance and data quality was crucial. 


Topeka’s data governance policy began when the city started to complete the What Works Cities Certification process. After making the decision to focus on the data governance and data quality criteria, Schoonover and other city officials approached this work from the perspective of residents, asking themselves what kinds of information Topekans would be interested in. They wanted to publish a diverse and useful variety of data, and put together a data governance committee with representatives from all city departments and levels, including the City Manager’s Office. 


After assembling the committee, the members began working on a data governance policy, which they made public in order to show their commitment to open data. This transparency helped hold them accountable to their data governance goals. Of course, when making data public, privacy is an important concern. The committee focuses on being compliant with regulations around personally identifiable information, and has built checks and balances to ensure that any data released publically has been reviewed and cleaned. Their caution around privacy concerns means that, while the committee might release data on a slower timeline than initially planned, all of the data has been carefully reviewed to protect Topeka’s residents. 


The committee meets on a quarterly basis to guide the overall direction of Topeka’s data governance work; a subcommittee does more in-depth assignments around where the data is stored and how its cleaned. Schoonover started the initial data governance work, but felt strongly that a collaborative, committee approach was the best way to ensure participation and buy-in from all departments. Topeka’s Mayor Michelle de la Isla and City Manager Brent Trout championed the work, while understanding Schoonover’s desire to have the shared responsibility and commitment of multiple stakeholders. “If you are part of that, you own it,” explained Schoonover. “I have access to all of the information, but I don’t want to dictate. I want you to step up to the plate and say, ‘Yes, I’m a part of this.’” 


Making this a collaborative effort was also cost-saving; the only fee Topeka incurred was for the portal platform that publishes the data. By distributing the duties, the city was able to incorporate the data governance work into existing job responsibilities. Schoonver described this system as the creative response to resource challenges. Coming from a smaller city with less budget flexibility, Topeka identified a way to address issues with data governance without impacting the bottom line. 


 As the work has progressed, the committee has also been creative in addressing other challenges that have arisen. One big thing they’re addressing while making their data public is the sheer amount of information the city has as an organization. They first needed to know how much information everyone in the city had—how many applications, databases, and spreadsheets were in all the departments. This data inventory revealed the 1,400 different datasets and 800 databases. One issue was the “copy of a copy of a copy” that came from different employees downloading, editing, and recreating the same information. Decentralized data storage, out-of-date applications, and multiple document versions increased the potential for errors. This enormous challenge, though daunting, has reassured Schoonover that the data governance work is crucial and much-needed, as this inventory process revealed challenges with information technology and process management. 


Human nature is another challenge. Organizational change is difficult, and asking city employees to engage in different ways of viewing, storing, and collecting information isn’t always easy. But it’s important that everyone is on the same page with data processes in the city, and Schoonover is developing a framework that will tie all of the different departments together. In order to make things open and share data with the public and other partners, the structure of all of Topeka’s data has to be strong and sound. The consistency and integration standards, and their widespread adoption, is the next challenge that Schoonover and the committee are tackling. 


To sustain and continually improve this data governance process, Topeka has begun initiatives to teach employees about the importance of compliance and regularity for the organization. Everyone agrees that data standards are good, but it can sometimes slip down the priority list. Having facilitations and trainings on data, analytics, and regulation has helped center this work for all departments. City Manager Trout has also implemented a Rapid Process Improvement (RPI) initiative, a way of deconstructing city processes and then reconstructing them in a more streamlined, user-focused way. This process improvement work is a parallel to the data governance work since it also focuses on standardization and improving older methods. 


Schoonover and others have already seen multiple successful outcomes from this shift. The changes coming from the data governance work have led to significant time savings and increased transparency. For instance, the city’s payroll department was running a reporting process that required several hours of manual manipulations. As the committee’s work on data standards and streamlining began to shift the perspective of city hall, the payroll department came to Schoonover and asked about modifying their report system. The changes that were implemented led to a 30 percent reduction in time spent on processing, increasing the overall efficiency of the payroll team.


Topeka has also gained attention for their data transparency around Capital Improvement Projects (CIP). A significant chunk of the city’s budget goes toward CIP, including fixing streets and water lines. Two of Topeka’s main principles are openness and accountability, so the city’s decision to publish the CIP information was in line with its transparency initiative. To accomplish this, it was necessary to consolidate all information—no more Excel sheets, multiple applications, notepads and sticky notes. Schoonover is proud that the CIP financial/project information has been standardized, with an online, publically available project management system that holds all of the capital improvement budget information. The consistent, centralized information is now automated to update daily, and increases accountability through transparent data. As far as Schoonover knows, Topeka is the only place in the country with such a public CIP budget and project system; there has been a lot of interest from other cities looking to streamline, clean, and automate their CIP process. Not only did it consolidate the information and streamline the process, but also gave more visibility to the internal staff.  


Interested in corralling and shaping the data in your city? Schoonover gave advice for other governments that are interested in starting data governance policies. Her advice is:


  1. Make sure you have participation and buy-in from across the board. Schoonver says that it’s important to have support and involvement from different departments, and different levels of authority. It’s important to have support from city leaders, but the ownership should be dispersed throughout the organization because “if you’re all sitting around a table, you get a lot better engagement than if it’s dictated from the top.” 


  1. Really define your objectives and goals—and “don’t be scared to try something new!” Anyone digging into their city’s data is going to find weak points in governance, security, or collection, but the process of finding an issue didn’t create it. That problem was there all along and now you can address it. You can make things better by setting a goal and trying something different to achieve it.


  1. Keep up the communication. Both the people working directly on data governance and those tangential to the process should be frequently informed on progress. Promoting the “effectiveness and efficiency” that comes from the process helps you further the goals and find individuals who can assist with the work. Internal communication is very important to sustaining commitment to improving data governance.