The Core Features of the Data-Powered City

Today's most innovative civic leaders are using technology to fulfill the promise of efficient and responsive local government.
September 17, 2014
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

By 2050, more than 75 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas. But without substantive changes in governance, city halls will be unable to meet the needs of this growing population.

Infusing government operations with the latest technological advances is no panacea, but it suggests the most promising way out of business-as-usual governance. The data-driven revolution cannot come soon enough. Too many local governments are mired in century-old, rule-bound structures that stifle collaboration and problem solving. And citizens, whose trust in government is at an all-time low, have little sense that they can play a role in the social fabric of their cities.

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To break this cycle of apathy and distrust, civic leaders can use data to reimagine how government works. Digital innovations can empower residents and public servants, foster constructive public engagement, and create local governments that are more transparent, responsive, accountable and cost-effective.

In our new book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, Susan Crawford and I show how the most innovative cities and their leaders are using technology to become more nimble and better able to respond to the needs of a growing population. We describe four core features of this new governance:

The Data-Driven Enterprise: Cities need to drive reform both from the top down and the bottom up. They need to create common data definitions, as Chicago did with its Data Dictionary. They need to take the huge amounts of information stored in information technology systems that process transactions, mine that data across government agencies, and turn it into smart government.

Embracing data at the executive level will help leaders find answers to long-festering problems, and it will enable them to anticipate and solve problems before they manifest themselves in a serious way. A citywide effort needs to have users in each agency, but it also must include enterprise-wide efforts, involving a chief data officer, a chief innovation officer, a true commitment to open government and a mechanism connecting data to performance.

The Engaged Citizen: Cities at the forefront of the digital revolution have created free-flowing channels of communication, powered by robust open-data platforms and networks of integrated data. The free flow of data generates greater public trust and confidence -- the civic glue necessary for prosperity -- and encourages the engaged citizenship that drives change. Engaging the citizenry combines tools (apps that connect community to city hall) with response loops back to the citizen and a 311 center that operates as a platform connecting citizen and city hall no matter what media is used to communicate.

The Empowered Employee: Data smart government values the intelligence of public employees and allows for informed decisions that take risks into account. With the ability to access information in real time, such as through raw data and automated forms pushed to handheld devices in the field, employees can make better-informed judgments and be held accountable for results. Greater latitude in decision-making gives way to higher levels of productivity, replacing rule-bound government with an ardent and proactive public sector.

The Innovative Leader: Despite the enormous potential of new data platforms, technology alone cannot power change. Data smart governance needs city officials and innovators to lead the charge and empower public employees to translate these technological advances into action. Motivated by a desire to create efficiencies, save taxpayer money and positively impact communities, these pioneers will pave the way by leveraging data to create genuinely new approaches to government.