City Halls Are Increasingly Innovative AND Trustworthy

Local governments are investment-worthy because of their position in solving some of our toughest social problems. They’re also more trustworthy than in the past.
May 2, 2018
Seattle -- a top performer in resident-involved -- builds trust by requiring all city departments to use a racial equity lens and conducting an engagement assessment. David Kidd
By Steven Bosacker  |  Living Cities
Principal, Public Sector & Partnerships, Living Cities
Race-Informed Resident-Involved Broadly Partnered Data-Driven Dynamically Planned Employee-Engaged Smartly Resourced

This March, my boss and Living Cities’ president, Ben Hecht, penned a piece urging private investors and philanthropists to reconsider local government as a valid investment for driving and taking to scale innovative solutions to this century’s biggest problems  — “intravenous innovation,” he calls it. His theory is that we are “underinvesting in a key stakeholder [local government] that is uniquely positioned to drive systemic change toward greater economic security, better social outcomes, and increased racial equity.” Further, he asserts that government is more likely to scale such innovations if they prototype and own innovation work from the beginning.

I agree. It’s an idea that has found its moment, partly because of how much local urban governments have improved over the years to become high-performing organizations.

For foundations and other private funders to shift their behavior and invest directly in local government, trust is critical. My work as the chief administrator in Minneapolis and my collaboration with large city and county governments across America have shown me that local government is more deserving of such trust, and therefore investment dollars, than it used to be.

Polling data from Gallup confirms the growing trust in local government over the past 45 years, and especially at the city level, and the results of our most recent Equipt to Innovate survey detail a host of examples that demonstrate why this may be.

As you can see from these statistics, trust in local government has risen over the past 45 years, and has held at a very high level  —  around 70 percent  —  over the last 10 years. The trend for trust in federal government is almost the reverse, with trust levels decreasing 25 percent over the same period, and falling over the last decade.

Gallup has also tracked and reported on the difference in trust levels between state government and local (city and county) government. Here, too, cities fare better with 70 percent of respondents expressing a “great deal/fair amount” of trust compared to 63 percent for state government.

But what’s underneath this disparity in trust of local government compared to the state and federal levels?

Anthony Williams, former mayor of Washington, D.C., who contends that after the Trump administration, the country may never be “more ready for a mayor-president,” says, “Cities  —  which had so often been liabilities for mayors seeking higher offices   — have become an attractive brand of smart, solution-based, can-do governance that mayors can showcase in a campaign.”

In a period when the cynicism about government is widespread, it is worth noting that trust in local government largely remains steady. People have held onto their trust in local government despite the endless parade of corruption and other bad news every day in the papers and on TV.

There are many reasons for this, chief among them is that cities are the one remaining level of government that:

  • fixes real day-to-day problems and gets things done
  • partners readily and is more present and responsive to their residents
  • frequently uses data or other hard evidence to determine the best course forward
  • makes decisions without regard to the partisanship that has bogged down state legislatures and Congress

In the last two years, Living Cities and Governing magazine have surveyed from the largest 300 U.S. cities on seven elements of high-performing government, a framework we developed called Equipt to Innovate. The results suggest that the state of municipal governing is good and getting better all the time.

On being meaningfully engaged with residents, no city does it better than Seattle, Washington, which requires all city departments to use a racial equity lens and conduct an engagement assessment on key policies and new programs, so that residents’ voices are deeply embedded in changes. Seattle sets the pace, but there are another 25 cities right behind them using technology creatively to solicit input and meaningfully engage residents toward problem-solving.

Cities across America are breaking down the walls of City Hall, and busting the silos between departments inside, to partner broadly and bring the best minds to the biggest challenges. In Houston, Texas, the city is revitalizing its most neglected neighborhoods with active participants from every community sector  —  big and small businesses, arts organizations, non-profits, and the schools through the “Complete Communities Advisory Committee.” The collaboration goes way beyond rhetoric, and works closely with the residents of communities to understand their strengths and opportunities. While working to improve these communities, they strive to ensure existing residents can stay in homes that remain affordable.

And on being powerfully data-driven, polling results gathered by the National Association of Counties in 2017 suggest that fully 84 percent of counties are using performance metrics to do their work. Similar data collected in the Equipt to Innovate survey of the nation’s largest cities reveals that 96 percent of cities surveyed do the same. These are big percentages, especially given that 10 years ago, it was an outlier city or county that would have been this data-driven. Such data use is reducing traffic congestion in Las Vegas, creating small business startups in Chicago, and reducing blight in Mobile.

When I was City Coordinator of Minneapolis in 2011, the number of domestic violence cases was growing, and the city’s rate of convictions was not. It was vexing to our police force and the city’s attorneys that we were unable to prevail before the judges at higher percentages. Our team dissected the possible causes, discovered deficiencies in the police arrest reports, developed a training module on writing better reports, then took all cops in the five police precincts through the training. Precinct-by-precinct, we saw the conviction rates soar. Bad information had resulted in bad conviction rates. Good information did the reverse, and dangerous abusers were headed to jail.

The point is, we had to figure out what had to change. Cities can solve problems quickly, using good information and taking the initiative to address what might be going wrong. There is very little lag time between diagnosing a problem and trying out solutions. Fundamentally, effective problem-solving results in greater trust. It’s what our cities are doing more and more, every day.