Understanding the Benefits of a Data-Driven Government

Cities have come a long way in using data to inform decision-making, but progress can still be made.
March 19, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
San Diego established the region’s first chief data officer position, a powerful open data policy and a transparent budget visualization tool. Shutterstock/Dancestrokes
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.
Data-Driven Employee-Engaged Race-Informed

Over the course of the last 30-plus years as a husband-and-wife team, we’ve explored the land, sea and shore of state and local governments (though we’ve avoided the nitty-gritty realm of politics, which could cause readers to intuit a bias in our work that genuinely isn’t there). This has included research, reporting and writing on a wide variety of topics, including strategic planning, budgeting, the power of data and performance measurements, gender and race diversity, human resources and more.

With that background, we’re thoroughly excited about being invited to take over this column from the more than capable Lisa Wong, four-term mayor of Fitchburg, Mass., and a senior fellow at the Governing Institute who has now returned to public service as the town manager of Winchester, Massachusetts.

Over our years tilling in the vineyards of state and local governments, we’ve been senior advisors for the Pew Charitable Trusts, senior advisors for the Council of State Governments and much more. Currently, we are senior fellows at the Governing Institute, columnists for Governing magazine, special project consultants at the Volcker Alliance, senior advisors to the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and fellows at the National Academy of Public Administration.

Additionally, we are currently under contract with publisher, Rowman and Littlefield, to write a book about performance management, due out in January 2020.

While we’re always most excited about the projects in which we’re currently involved, one of our greatest interests over the years has been in the good, bad and ugly use of data in state and local government. This meshes very neatly with the data-driven element, part of the Equipt to Innovate list of innovative and socially impactful governance among cities.

At the time when we began to explore this topic, around 1990, governments using data to help make hard decisions was just a mushrooming notion. We interviewed experts in all 50 states and the 30 largest cities. Leaders at all levels of state and local government shared a similar refrain as the assistant senate majority leader in Maine. The state was doing virtually no performance-based management and he filled us in on his alternative: “Pleasing the voters is our performance evaluation.”

By that he meant that the only evaluation the state considered was the one delivered by citizens on election day. Around that time, the long-term mayor of Indianapolis, William Hudnut, told us that his city’s major foray into data-informed decision-making was that it kept track of complaints received about potholes, but not necessarily how the complaints were addressed.

Oh, how the world has changed. Today, we’ve reached a turning point in which data is being gathered by the bushel-basket, and the challenge is to convince policymakers to use it when making management and policy decisions.

The Equipt to Innovate project, a collaboration between Living Cities and Governing, has uncovered some of the cities that are making the most innovative use of data-driven decision-making. A few examples:

  • San Diego has made great strides in using its library system as a means for bridging the digital divide and making useful data available to the citizenry at large. Among the steps taken to accomplish this goal is a plan to add wireless access points to increase public internet connectivity at all 35 public library branches. In addition, the city has established the region’s first chief data officer position, a powerful open data policy and a transparent budget visualization tool.
  • In Seattle, an open data policy has been established in which each department is responsible for publishing its own data, with centralized support from the open data team. To accelerate progress on that front, each department appoints a so-called “open data champion” to lead in this work.
  • Las Vegas, like other cities, conducts an annual employee management survey. Digging into this data can be very useful. Based on the city’s survey, overall employee engagement has increased from 42 percent in 2012 to 61 percent in 2016. That’s a solid gain, but there’s lots of room for improvement since the percentage of employees feeling recognized and appreciated has consistently lagged behind other indicators; it was 52 percent in 2016.

Though these leading cities can help as models, persistent problems remain in data-driven decision-making. For example, in many cities, data is not disaggregated according to race. Without that information, solutions to social problems that primarily effect minorities in America can be hard to uncover. That’s just the beginning of missing and misleading data used by governments, and given the benefits of good data, shortchanging its development and quality control can rob citizens of the best governments possible.

These monthly columns, authored by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, are in support of Equipt to Innovate, a framework for creating high-performance government, jointly created by the nonprofit Living Cities and Governing.