The C-Title That Cities Need: Chief Research Officer

In the search for effective evidenced-based government, it's important to have somebody to connect the dots.
September 24, 2015
By Katharine Lusk  |  Contributor
Executive director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities

You can almost hear it: In mayoral cabinets nationwide, new chairs are being pulled up to the table. Chief resiliency officers are joining their ranks, along with data and innovation chiefs. And yet room hasn't been made for a critical seat: chief research officer. In cash-strapped cities drowning in data and searching for evidence-based interventions that have real impact, a chief research officer would be a master stroke.

A definition is in order. A CRO would have three responsibilities: setting a citywide research agenda, marshalling resources to carry it out and providing a politically durable hub for knowledge of what works -- from programs to policies to methods of citizen engagement. Equal parts researcher, ringmaster and grants administrator, the CRO's office would provide external collaborators with a single point of entry and internal colleagues with a single convener. In the process, a CRO could make substantial progress on a few things about local government that need fixing:

Personal connections too often stand in for a collaboration strategy. As someone who helps to facilitate partnerships between academics and cities, I can attest that these are often the result of someone on the outside knowing the right person on the inside. Lacking a visible bridge-builder with academic fluency, cities are losing out on opportunities to leverage the skills of researchers who love cities and want to help them. Universities need to change too, and some are, responding to the demand to translate more of their ideas from paper to practice.

No one is connecting the dots across silos, departments or institutions. Municipal police departments, school districts, public health departments and economic-development agencies often have their own researchers, and other departments may spearhead research, whether on women's advancement, housing affordability or traffic congestion. And while some cities partner with one university, as Pittsburgh does with Carnegie Mellon, others work with many universities, foundations and think tanks, as Boston does. But it's no one's job to help everyone connect and share findings.

Cities' embrace of data is necessary but not sufficient. The trend toward big data and open data is an exciting shift, and smart moves like Boston's Citywide Analytics team can break down silos and improve service efficiency. But data isn't a panacea. It may help reveal what but not why. With the trend toward rigorous data collection in areas such as policing, there's the risk that data will be used -- and judged -- in a vacuum rather than in the context of real community understanding and in concert with public health, economic development or education reforms. Even then, data isn't the same as evidence -- the measurement of how inputs are driving outcomes.

Cities are not sophisticated marketers. Even the perfectly designed program will fail if no one knows about it. As a former professional marketer and mayoral staffer, I can affirm that this is a critical research arena that cities overlook. Beyond bills and trash collection, what are a city's constituent touchpoints? Do the neediest know about programs designed for them? Which channels reach which people? "Pull" tactics such as 311, Commonwealth Connect or Textizen are growing increasingly sophisticated. But "push" marketing remains in the dark ages in local government. Social media is a start, but it's still a blunt instrument that fails to reach a majority. Political machines have mastered microtargeting, but those skillsets are rarely applied once the winner takes the reins.

Cities need more safeguards to protect and engage residents. Research often happens on rather than with cities and residents, because government lacks capacity to build enduring partnerships and create (or mandate) a feedback loop to share results. Research fatigue is real; as the research director of a local neighborhood organization recently declared: "We're tired of being studied!" Community-based participatory research can empower residents as partners rather than as test subjects, and proper sampling ensures that the right voices -- rather than just the loudest ones -- are being heard. Safety is critical too. Universities have institutional review boards to evaluate the ethics of human-subject research. While such boards do exist in some communities, most cities lack such centralized protocols.

Institutional knowledge gets lost with every election cycle. Political transitions are an inevitability, and yet few cities take steps that to ensure that each administration's acquired knowledge survives the changing of the guard. (Boston's Transition Blog was one of the rare exceptions, but it only scratched the surface.) Personal relationships take the place of knowledge-transfer systems, but these are predicated on an amicable transition -- never a foregone conclusion in politics.

If this all sounds like too much for one person to tackle, it is. What's required on the part of cities is systemic change: a new role, new platform and new way of working. But a new chief in the right seat is the right place to start.