Why Every City Should Make a Commitment to Data

It can be tough politically, but it's critical to reinventing how we govern.
March 13, 2018
A generic city hall
By Richard Berry  |  Contributor
Former mayor of Albuquerque

Let's be frank: It's completely understandable that mayors might hesitate before jumping into a commitment to the intensive use of data and analytics to inform and improve their cities' operations. Data and greater transparency open up elected officials and their teams to more criticism, invite political opposition and almost always expose programs that need improvement. It can be a politically difficult process.

But here's the upside: The elected officials and city administrators who have made transparency, open data and analysis hallmarks of their administrations are at the forefront of reinventing how we govern for the better. And by inviting residents to participate in local government, they are injecting a much-needed infusion of trust into City Hall. Their cities will be more inclusive and equitable because of it. It's tough work but it's worth it -- every time.

While data can be your friend, it may not always be immediately obvious. I was thrilled during my first term as the mayor of Albuquerque to be highlighted in The Economist for my transparency measures. The article was based in part on my publication of all city-government employees' salaries, vendor contracts and even my mayoral credit card statement. I told my friends and family to be on the lookout for the upcoming issue. Then one morning I received a text from a friend that read, "Nice headline!" It turned out that the title of the article was "Sunshine or Colonoscopy." Ouch. It took me a while to appreciate the sentiment, but that article became an ongoing inspiration to me, and I was able to share that inspiration with great staffers who devoted themselves to this vision and work.

That opportunity to build employee buy-in highlights a critical need. Before you can get better at making use of data, you're going to have to bolster the culture of change that it takes to do the work. There will be some employees and residents who cling to the old ways of doing things. One way to get support is by aligning yourself with leaders in the field and other cities who are doing this work. Albuquerque worked with the Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities project to get technical assistance and to join its network of experts and other cities.

There are other ways to build public employees' enthusiasm for a new emphasis on data. To lift up our city's effort to tackle fraud, waste and abuse, for example, we gave the effort a name and created an incentive. We called the initiative ESA, short for efficiency, stewardship and accountability. I put together a $20,000 incentive fund and told all 6,000 city employees that if they could leverage data to be better stewards of taxpayer resources, I would send them back to their departments with 1 percent of the savings, up to $1,000. They could spend the reward as they chose within their departments. Some scoffed at the suggestion that government employees would buy in to the concept. But fast forward eight years, and those incentives resulted in total efficiencies and taxpayer savings exceeding $30 million. The better news is that many of these savings are recurring year after year -- the gift that keeps giving.

We celebrated these victories at City Hall, and I was always thrilled when local media covered the stories. It helped us build the foundation of a positive culture of data-based governance, creating an upward spiral. That was the fun part. But the data knife cuts both ways. We also had to be willing to answer to the fact that our data pointed to some programs and services that weren't working as they should. Being willing to take on those challenges reflects a continual commitment to data and improvement within the organization.

Any mayor will recognize that it's not about numbers, it's about improving people's lives, and data can make that possible. By using data to inform policy, for example, we created the capacity and the will to house more than 700 chronically homeless people in our community, while documenting $5 million in taxpayer savings. We discovered that in Albuquerque it's 31.6 percent less expensive to provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless than to shelter them temporarily or turn them away as they struggle for survival on the streets. Data also led us to a better understanding of where and why crimes occur in our city. The list goes on and on.

Mayors have a very important role in this work, and their constituents are counting on them. A public commitment to data is critical to a city's success. When I look back on my time as mayor of Albuquerque, it's the heavy lifts that I will remember most fondly, and data made many of those heavy lifts possible. I wouldn't trade them for anything.