To expand the use of data-centered performance management in Philadelphia’s government, the next mayor should build on the recent successes that have made some city services more efficient and more responsive to residents’ needs.
That was the consensus of a virtual panel discussion held Oct. 6, the third in a series sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative and the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government organization.
Previous sessions had explored performance management in local governments across the country, but one key question that had arisen concerned how best to get sometimes wary city department heads and frontline workers to make data collection and analysis central to their work. Should the approach be top-down, with the mayor taking the lead, or more decentralized?
In this Philadelphia-focused session, panelists generally agreed that a combination of both felt right for the city. “I support a decentralized system but a centralized strategy,” said panelist Anjali Chainani. She was previously a policy director for Mayor Jim Kenney and is now the CEO of Anavi Strategies, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm.
A decentralized system, Chainani said, lets individual departments and agencies make their own decisions about how to use performance management to address the issues they face, many of which are unique to their specific work, and to track the most relevant metrics and outcomes. In her view, a centralized strategy would include citywide standards about the use of data and confidentiality protections, combined with vocal backing from the city’s top leaders.
Josie Pickens, who heads the mayor’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), agreed, urging city officials to “build on what’s working … as opposed to recreating from scratch.”
Stephanie Tipton, the city’s chief administrative officer, said that her experience tells her that data-centered performance management in Philadelphia works best when there is clarity about desired outcomes at the department or agency level—“things that staff [and] those we serve can understand, can tangibly feel and see.” A top-down approach, on the other hand, can “feel more like an exercise in just collecting data.”
Andrew Buss, the city’s deputy chief information officer for innovation management, added that any attempt to expand reliance on performance management can succeed only if top city officials prioritize building the capacity throughout the government—in terms of resources and people—to get this work done.
In addition to those panelists, the event featured prerecorded conversations with three city employees discussing how they’ve used data and performance management in their operations to improve services and better allocate resources.
Ashley Pollard, digital inclusion manager at Philadelphia's Office of Innovation and Technology, described the PHLConnectED program, created in the early months of the pandemic to help families with school-age children access free or low-cost internet. Officials collected demographic data about the households seeking assistance and kept track of the difficulties those residents encountered in gaining access. All of that, Pollard said, helped PHLConnectED “to really pivot and make operational changes based on what was happening.”
This was essential to a program that started from scratch, geared up quickly, and had to adjust its focus several times as circumstances changed. The initiative served more than 23,000 families in its first three years.
Télyse Masaoay, director of racial equity policy and practice in the mayor’s DEI office, discussed the creation of a Racial Equity Strategy Dashboard to track progress in implementing racial equity action plans developed by city departments and agencies. Lacking robust baseline statistics, Masaoay’s team had to rely initially on nonnumerical, qualitative data instead.
The lesson, she said, is that “even if the data you have is imperfect, it’s really important to start somewhere.” Doing so, she added, “starts to build that [performance management] muscle.”
Jen Maguire-Wright, director of performance management and technology for the Free Library of Philadelphia, explained how the library used data analysis to streamline its system for moving books and other materials—often items placed on hold by library users—among the library’s 54 locations.
The changes implemented cut the processing time from three to six weeks to only a few days. In addition to collecting and understanding the numbers, Maguire-White and her team found that soliciting input from frontline staff was essential to achieving this outcome. “They had ideas we hadn’t thought of,” she said.
Many of the solutions created through data-centered performance management can seem surprisingly simple, especially in retrospect. In the library’s case, one key change was to increase the number of bins used during the sorting process for materials to be transferred from one branch to another.
“Sometimes, the problems that we’re trying to solve … are very complex,” Tipton said. “But if you can have those very clear-minded, simple goals, and get laser-focused and do those things really well, that’s where you see the greatest outcomes in terms of improvements to service delivery.”
Taken as a whole, the three convenings on performance management made it clear that the use of data to strengthen and refine programs and processes has become a key focus for leaders in local government—and for good reason.
“This is what innovation looks like in the city [government], right?” said Buss. “We don’t invent little toys that we take to market. We don’t bring new medication to market. Essentially, our innovation is improving our processes and our programs for residents.”
Previous webinars in the series include “How Local Governments Can Use Data to Better Serve Residents.” and “How to Build a Culture of Performance in City Government.”
Larry Eichel is a senior adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
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