Building a Government that Residents Can Count On: The Value of Assessing Your City’s Data Practices

Jun. 19, 2020

Ivy Gilbert

When it comes to resident health and safety, data is a critical tool. For cities, a strong grasp of their data and the information that it reveals can help leaders and city staff make informed decisions — from reimagining social service contracts to ensure they are contributing to a reduction in homelessness rather than simply increasing the number of beds in shelters, like they did in the city of Seattle, to the work that Washington, DC is doing to alleviate stress on the city’s emergency response system by proactively connecting residents to the appropriate alternative health services.

Or, consider an example from New Orleans where the use of data undergirds many of its major programs, including ones that directly impact residents’ health and safety. The city’s Office of Performance and Accountability developed a predictive model that identified which parts of the city were most at risk for fires and fire fatalities. The city then used that information to target its campaign to distribute smoke alarms to households in those areas. Using data analytics, it identified twice as many households in need of smoke alarms than it had when the city chose households at random.

Local governments across the U.S. are currently facing important decisions in the face of the COVID pandemic, from how and where to implement resident testing, to re-opening businesses and social functions. As more and more cities around the country are collecting and using data to make informed decisions that meaningfully impact residents’ lives, knowing where to start on the path to becoming a data-driven government can at times seem daunting, especially with the resource constraints that many local governments face. For example, through the City Health Dashboard, cities have access to a robust set of city- and census tract- level health data. While this data is a powerful resource in making informed policy decisions, knowing how to effectively use it and even where to start can prevent city leaders from utilizing the data to its fullest extent.

Becoming a data-driven city and being able to tap into the practical power of data starts with a first step towards getting the right data processes, policies, and talent in place. The What Works Cities Assessment serves as that critical first step by benchmarking a city’s data practices against a national standard and then providing a tailored roadmap and set of resources for cities as they progress toward achieving the standard. [Note: You can find What Works Cities on the City Health Dashboard’s Find Partners filter, in the Take Action center.]

Launched in 2015, What Works Cities is a national initiative that partners with local governments across the country to drive progress and solve problems in their cities through the effective use of data and evidence. Operating as a partnership between several national organizations, What Works Cities works directly with city leaders and staff by providing coaching and technical assistance, a range of online and in-person learning opportunities, and a growing nationwide professional network of more than 200 cities.  

When cities complete our online Assessment— a comprehensive data check-up for local governments— their data practices are benchmarked against the criteria in our What Works Cities Certification program, the national standard of excellence for data-driven, well-managed local government.  We’ve engineered the What Works Cities Certification program with the understanding that building the foundations of data-driven decision-making in a city is not always intuitive, nor is it a flip that can be switched on overnight. We wanted to take a process that can feel overwhelming and break it down into tactical, easy-to-understand steps that any city can use. New Orleans, Washington DC, and the city of Seattle have all worked with What Works Cities to strengthen their use of data to better deliver services to residents and have and have achieved Certification.

Read more about the methodology behind What Works Cities Certification and the Assessment here

Regardless of a city’s prior experience incorporating data practices into city hall’s everyday decisions, taking 30 minutes to an hour to complete an Assessment unlocks the door to all that What Works Cities has to offer. We connect cities to the right technical support and to a network of their peers so that they can achieve the outcomes they’re aspiring toward, whether that be related to resident health and safety or another pressing challenge, and use data as a primary tool for building a better local government. Whether it’s around establishing a data governance team, strengthening community engagement, crafting effective COVID-19 messaging, or myriad other priorities that a city may have, What Works Cities acts as a bridge that connects cities to support.

Learn how this tool can be helpful for cities with populations under 100,000 here

Complete a What Works Cities Assessment today!

Ivy Gilbert is a Communications and Marketing Assistant for What Works Cities and leads the organization’s social media strategy and newsletter campaigns. She tells the stories of cities across the country that are improving residents’ lives by using data and evidence effectively to tackle pressing challenges.

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