What cities have made the most progress in embedding data practices throughout their operations to deliver better results for their residents? With many competing visions of what a "smart" or "data-driven" city should look like, the benchmarks for success are elusive. A new certification program offers one answer: an expert-defined framework for evaluating success.

Two and a half years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched its What Works Cities initiative, an ambitious effort to assist a hundred cities in driving performance at a high level. Bloomberg arranged technical assistance to those cities through Results for America, the Center for Government Excellence, the Government Performance Lab, the Sunlight Foundation and the United Kingdom's Behavioural Insights Team and hosted convenings that celebrated successes and shared collaborative breakthroughs.

So why, then, was the next step in this model to launch a certification program? Too often the important day-to-day work in a city to drive high-quality services and solve knotty policy problems gets drowned out by more divisive or spectacular stories. A professionally run, fair certification program drives attention to the high performers, allowing them to accomplish even more by developing political capital. It also sets up a race to the top among the increasing number of exceptionally well-run, data-driven American cities. The certification program plays a critical role in elevating everyone's game.

Last week, the program announced the first cities to be certified at the gold and silver levels. Through a rigorous evaluation process, applicant cities were measured on their performance on criteria in open data, data governance, performance analytics, low-cost evaluations, results-driven contracting and repurposing for results. The measurement criteria take in such capacity-building fundamentals as having a person or team charged with managing data, maintaining a data inventory, and establishing an open-data policy.

Los Angeles is the only city to achieve a gold level of certification for its data efforts. The cities certified at the silver level were Boston, Kansas City, Louisville, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.. These cities have a few key things in common: mayoral vision, dedicated data leadership (all nine are represented in the Civic Analytics Network of urban chief data officers), and a commitment to using data to tackle key city priorities and achieve results for their residents.

Neil Kleiman and I highlighted Los Angeles' work and stories from several other certified cities in our recent book, A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative, and Distributed Governance. The certified cities have made strides toward implementing our concept of a new operating system for government, one that modernizes the fundamentals of city operations to unlock a new level of innovation and responsiveness. The direct line between a successful focus on day-to-day capacity-building and breakthrough innovation initiatives highlights how important the fundamentals are to any mayor desiring to create real change.

As the importance of cities in our governmental system increases, so must the professionalism of their executives and administrators. Los Angeles' and the other certified cities' successes in addressing pressing issues showcase the end results made possible by a focus on capacity-building data work. The certification program offers clear benchmarks and tactics for any city to improve its data capabilities while on the path to a new O/S and is an important contribution to the field.