How Local Governments Can Use Data to Better Serve Residents

Experts discuss past, present, and future of government performance management

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How Local Governments Can Use Data to Better Serve Residents
Philly City Center
Frédéric Soltan Corbis via Getty Images

Good data, when thoughtfully collected and analyzed, can help governments at all levels set more effective policies and give officials the tools to gauge whether programs are meeting their objectives. On May 25, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative and the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government organization, hosted a virtual panel discussion on the state of data-driven local governance nationwide. 

The event, the first in a series to run through the summer, focused on what is known as performance management. Moderator Anjali Chainani, founder and principal of the consulting firm Anavi Strategies, defined the term as a process that gives local government officials and the public the means for “objectively assessing what is working well and what needs to be improved.”

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Data-Driven City Government, 20 Years After CitiStat

Data-driven performance management in local government started to come to the forefront 20 years ago with the creation of CitiStat in Baltimore’s city government. Officials there felt that collecting data about government operations, making it publicly available, and holding officials accountable for what the numbers showed would create incentives for improvement. Since CitiStat’s launch, numerous cities and counties have followed Baltimore’s lead with different degrees of effectiveness and commitment.

Over the years, Philadelphia’s use of these data tools has been more variable than in some peer cities. Could renewed attention to performance management help the city’s next mayor and other public officials address Philadelphia’s challenges more effectively?

Dan Hymowitz, director of the mayor’s office of performance and innovation in Baltimore, which includes Citistat, thinks so. He said that vigorous use of performance management can be a great help to an incoming mayor.

“From the moment you’re sworn in, as any leader will tell you, you’re about to get really subsumed in a just a huge amount of crises, challenges, political issues that come up every day,” Hymowitz said. Having a well-designed performance management system, he added, can help new mayors stay focused on their big-picture priorities, even as they deal with everything else.

Panelists taking part in the virtual discussion stressed that city officials cannot simply collect data, post the results on public dashboards, establish key performance indicators that can be tracked numerically, and leave it at that.

Beth Blauer, associate vice president for public sector innovation at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that “using data in a robust way” can play a vital role in effective governance. She said that she tells mayors: “This isn’t about coming out as a technocrat. This is about being an incredibly competent leader that is leading change that people really care about.”

The third panelist, Rochelle Haynes, managing director of What Works Cities—a program launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies to create standards of excellence for data-driven, well-managed local government—said that cities should, whenever possible, disaggregate the data collected by race, ethnicity, neighborhood, and other key metrics. That is critical for developing and implementing effective policies that serve all of a city’s residents.

“I think about performance management being a tool to drive equity goals,” Haynes said. “It’s not about how many trees we planted or how many sidewalks we fixed—but where we’re making those investments.”

Other key points that emerged from the hour-long conversation included:

  • For performance management to work, there must be a direct link between the data being collected and outcomes that are desired in the here and now. Aligning the data to outdated goals can be counterproductive, making officials think that collecting data has little value and little relation to their work.
  • An effectively designed performance management system can be a strong internal communications tool that helps to create a shared sense of purpose among local officials. And that can allow for faster decision-making and more effective implementation of those decisions. It also can help break down silos within government and foster interdepartmental cooperation.
  • As much as possible, performance management should be kept separate from a city’s budget process. If officials fear that their operating funds are at stake, they are unlikely to speak candidly about the issues that matter. “Not too many people in the public care a ton about how much money is being spent on programs,” Blauer said. “They are looking at the outcomes.”
  • Transparency and public accountability are vital parts of performance management. At the same time, panelists said, officials should be thoughtful and strategic about how they engage the public, especially in the early days of a new system. There’s no reason for constituents to care about numbers unless those numbers are tied to meaningful outcomes, complete with targets and timelines.

Pew plans to publish an accounting similar to this one about the next virtual session in this series. The topic will be what it takes to create a sustainable, data-driven culture in an organization—an effort that can be especially challenging in the public sector.

Larry Eichel is a senior adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.

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