Read more articles by Steve Goldsmith

By Stephen Goldsmith • November 28, 2018

City officials sometimes assume that the public will celebrate important municipal operational successes. Yet it is rare for such news to capture the attention span of residents pressed with their own day-to-day activities. Behind every successful algorithm-based, data-smart policy solution, there lies a story of human beings endeavoring to solve a problem. These stories are worth telling, and sharing them can be a remarkably effective method for marshalling resident support. By building narratives around compelling projects, cities can both keep the public informed about their efforts and build residents’ confidence in their local government.

To this end, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative has added new criteria to its Certification program that outline methods for local governments and their chief executives to share stories of progress with their citizenry. The addition of these communications-focused criteria points to the growing recognition of the value of narrative to both demonstrate process and to garner further interest and support. It is more than simple public relations: local governments have a responsibility to share those efforts and their outcomes with the residents who stand to benefit.

Stories begin when city government resolves to fix a problem. An example from Syracuse, New York, comes to mind. Syracuse was having multiple problems with its water system. In 2015, after a record-setting year for water main breaks in the city, former Mayor Stephanie Miner submitted a proposal to Governor Andrew Cuomo asking for $1 billion in infrastructure funding, with the bulk of it—$726 million, to be exact—going to the replacement of the city’s 550 miles of water mains. Miner believed that rebuilding the city’s infrastructure was a necessary prerequisite for its economic revitalization, but Cuomo thought otherwise.

“Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs,” said Cuomo to the editorial board of and The Post-Standard. “And then, you fix your own pipes.”

In 2015, Syracuse suffered another 372 water main breaks, leading Miner to renew the request for funding in 2016. At the same time, Miner also sought to restart the city’s narrative. In her 2016 State of the City address, the mayor introduced the city’s plan to pilot a sensor system that could detect leaks and predict main breaks. The system was also cost-efficient since predictive analytics could help staff prioritize repairs in the most damaged mains before breaks occurred. She effectively reframed the city’s water problems as an opportunity, not only for technological innovation, but also for a fundamental shift from a reactive water management approach toward a proactive, data-driven one.

In general, stories are emotionally instructive; they serve to remind us of our common ambitions, struggles, and, most importantly, our shared ability to act in times of need. They remind us that we can choose action over despair. By outlining an instructive plan, Miner did exactly that. After her State of the City address, Syracuse was then in a position to take action instead of relying on state or federal assistance. This narrative about cities turning to data to solve big challenges is one that newly elected Mayor Ben Walsh not only continues to build on but also to talk about with residents, such as when he spoke on regional public radio about how Syracuse’s performance management portal “helps all of us to better see how our resources are being allocated.”

The next step is to retain control of the story. In the absence of regular updates, ambitious promises prompt questions, not shared aspirations. People begin to ask, “What happened?” Either that, or the citizenry slowly loses interest. It’s up to city government to prevent either of those things from happening.

In addition to communicating the execution of extraordinary solutions, some cities have adopted strategies for continuous communication of ongoing work. For instance, Kansas City, Missouri, which has achieved What Works Cities Certification, uses the hashtag #KCStat on Twitter to share data from its monthly performance management meetings. In doing so, Kansas City has provided a platform for a larger conversation in which residents, nonprofits, local businesses, and city government can all participate.

Providing immediate access to such statistics obligates Kansas City to report its performance in detail, even during difficult times. On the other hand, by committing to transparency, the city embeds possible shortcomings within the context of narratives of steadfast devotion to continuing growth.

Of course, most residents do not care about quotidian performance objectives; as a rule, people only care when nonperformance affects them. It is necessary, therefore, for cities to share occasional milestones with the public. Like many local governments, Gilbert, Arizona, has committed to sharing municipal data with residents via an open data portal. But staff preparing for the portal launch knew that a “build it and they will come” mentality would not suffice—they also had to tell residents about it. The town’s press release introduced the portal and stated “the data is only useful if residents, businesses, and staff engage with it.” Municipal staff understood that would require telling those stakeholders how to take advantage of the new tool.

So the town’s Office of Digital Government created an animated character, Alex, to guide users through the portal and help them find their desired data sets. The team has launched and continues to undertake extensive digital efforts—including social media posts, videos, and podcast episodes—to introduce residents to Alex, the portal, and Gilbert’s data initiatives overall.

These efforts have served two important purposes. The first is to announce an important city development. The second is to showcase the town’s commitment to continuously investing in improvement and engaging its residents in civic life.

Accomplishments announced by a city’s community outreach department create more impact when framed as part of the relentless pursuit of improving the lives of residents and utilizing bold, new strategies for doing so. What Works Cities Certification, with the quality stamp of Bloomberg Philanthropies behind it, provides a powerful benchmark towards operational excellence.  By telling their stories, Syracuse, Kansas City, Gilbert, and countless others have all contributed to a growing collection of use cases that demonstrate the important role that effective communication plays in city governance.

Ready to advance your practices as a well-managed, data-driven local government? Participate in the What Works Cities Certification assessment here.