Moving Cities Beyond Performance Measurement

This analysis is a guest post from The American Cities Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts. It originally appeared here

performance measurement graph depictionA recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities suggested that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use, and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). (violetkaipa/Getty Images)

The recent explosion in the availability of data is changing the way Americans make decisions and do business in fields as diverse as sports, public health, shopping, and politics. The business of government is no exception. At the local level, new methods of collecting and analyzing information have varied and far-reaching effects on the ability of leaders to understand and work within their fiscal constraints and meet residents’ needs.

Local governments have used performance measurement—collecting and studying data with the aim of improving operating efficiency and effectiveness—for decades, but today’s cities have access to a wealth of other data. Those on the cutting edge are using these data with new analytical tools in innovative ways that often reach beyond the conventional definition of performance measurement. For example, the New York City Fire Department compiles information from various city departments about building characteristics—such as construction material, fireproofing, height, date of construction, and last inspection date—to prioritize buildings for inspections. Boston uses a cellphone app, called Street Bump, to help detect potholes using the accelerometers built into cellphones.

What’s new, beyond the sheer volume of data, to help governments improve?

  • Local governments previously examined statistics only within individual departments. Today, they are gleaning new insights by combining data across agencies.
  • Government officials typically reviewed performance statistics only periodically—annually, semiannually, or quarterly. Now they often have access to usable data in real time, allowing them to be more responsive and efficient.
  • In the past, cities primarily used analytics to understand past events. Today, some are exploring predictive analytics, using data to anticipate occurrences and outcomes.

As local governments continue to operate under fiscal restraints after the Great Recession (as recent Pew Charitable Trusts research found), data and analytics offer cities a critically important way to stretch limited dollars and improve services. Cities today, in the words of one Boston official, need to be ambidextrous organizations that can collect trash, teach kids, and enforce laws today but also innovate and learn to do better tomorrow.

This analysis looks at some of the innovative ways in which cities are using new tools and technologies and considers some of the challenges they face in using data effectively.

Using data in new ways

The huge quantities of data now available to governments present opportunities for cities seeking to improve services while cutting costs.

In an interview with Pew researchers, Jeff Tryens, a former New York City deputy director for performance management, noted that “performance measures are only one place to look for the data that you need to improve whatever it is you’re doing.”  He pointed to New York’s efforts to figure out which restaurants were dumping cooking oil into sewers and clogging pipes across the city. Instead of sending inspectors out to try to catch perpetrators in the act, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics compared a list of restaurants that have grease-hauling contracts with the locations of sewer blockages—information from unrelated city departments that had not been connected before—to determine which restaurants were most likely to be dumping grease.

Tryens said these data sources didn’t shed much light until city personnel figured out how to effectively cross-reference them. “The rest of the fun stuff was doing lots of analytics to try and figure out what was going on which caused that performance measure to underperform,” he said. City inspectors eventually issued violations on 95 percent of the targets on the suspect list, according to the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. The increased enforcement led to a decrease in sewer blockages and to savings on inspection and remediation.

Other cities around the country are also using data and analysis in innovative ways:

  • Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force identifies and responds to “problem properties,” which are nuisance buildings and/or vacant lots with persistent criminal activities and code violations. Four substantiated complaints within a 12-month period can land a property on the city’s list of such properties and result in fines and other enforcement actions. The task force analyzes trends using data points from various city departments—including 25-month crime statistics by neighborhood or police district and top-10 address lists for code violations—to predict which properties are at risk for further problems. It then works with landlords to address complaints and violations promptly. In the first two years of the task force’s operation, 275 properties were identified as potential problems. Of those, 58 were listed as problem properties, 44 of which have been remedied and removed from the list. An additional 39 cases were resolved before they were officially classified as problems. Calls to 911 about properties designated for crime-related issues fell by about 70 percent after the cases were deemed resolved.
  • Detroit collects information about response times, medical emergencies, calls for assistance, and other matters from the Fire Department, computer-aided dispatch, 911 dispatch, geographic information system, and other records through FireView Dashboard, a real-time tracking system. City officials use the information to allocate resources for the Fire Department, estimate response times, and plan community outreach. Budget cuts have forced the department to temporarily shut down some fire companies on a rolling basis to save on overtime costs, but the city had little information about how the brownouts would affect response times. One city official told Pew, “To get a response time would be to get two light-duty personnel to go through boxes of written reports and get a calculator to average out the response times.” The new system has helped the department determine which fire companies to brown out at what times to minimize the impact on response times, improving services for residents while maximizing city resources.
  • Las Vegas is using a system known as the Park Asset Data Collection and Data Conversion Program (ParkPAD) to track and measure the city’s park system, cutting costs while improving services for residents. The system stores quantitative data and maps for all park amenities, including benches, restrooms, trees, soil, sod, and hundreds of other components. Previously, the city had to pay for staff time to assess the needs before work could begin. For example, if a park needed new sod, the city would send an employee to the park with a surveyor’s wheel to measure the area needing replacement. Today, using ParkPAD’s digital maps and measurements, the city can determine how much sod it needs within minutes, saving hours of manual labor and improving accuracy.

Using data effectively

For local officials hoping to make real and ongoing improvements to government operations, collecting and analyzing data are just the beginning.

Speaking at a recent National League of Cities conference, Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in Los Angeles, said cities should use data to identify potential problems, understand why they are happening, and find solutions. “It’s not the numbers. It’s what you do with the numbers,” he told the audience in Austin, Texas.

Cole advised city officials to check data frequently and make adjustments to operations as necessary to improve performance. In addition, he encouraged leaders to foster a culture among municipal employees that prioritizes innovation and enhancement rather than placing blame, noting that punitive environments inevitably lead to a temptation to “cook the books.”

Whether deliberate or accidental, inaccurate information can lead to flawed decision-making. In New York City, numbers showing a dramatic drop in violence at Rikers Island were found to be faulty, omitting hundreds of inmate fights. Two officials at the facility were promoted based on the erroneous figures. City investigators subsequently concluded in a confidential report that the numbers were inaccurate and recommended that the officials be demoted—one has since retired—according to The New York Times.

Determining which measures are meaningful in assessing government performance can also pose challenges. A recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities explored the issues through interviews with staff from cities across the country. Two frequently offered suggestions: that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). The NLC report notes that selection of the most appropriate metrics is often an iterative process, requiring adjustments over time to ensure the best results.

When done correctly, performance metric selection leads municipal leaders to think about the broader questions of whom they are trying to serve and how. Cole gave the example of libraries: Twenty years ago, libraries might have been judged on how many books were checked out. Today, they serve many other purposes, such as providing a safe place for children to go after school and serving as a resource for adults looking for jobs. Because of this evolution, the performance of a modern library requires new metrics.

Conclusion

New data and analytics offer local leaders the opportunity to provide better, more efficient services even as budgets remain tight.

Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of the practice of government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former two-term mayor of Indianapolis, called the potential for cities to improve performance using data and analytics “enormous and unlimited.”

“We are at a point in time where the tools that allow us to drive performance exceed the application of those tools,” Goldsmith said. “It’s not technology that’s holding us back; it’s the conceptualization of how you use the tools in a practical way.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts provided generous funding support for NLC’s performance management guidebook

New Award Recognizes Innovative Affordable Housing Policies & Programs

This is a guest post by Jess Zimbabwe and Michelle McDonough Winters.

A Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in AustinA Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in Austin, which includes both for-sale and for-rent homes—25% of the total units on the site—that are affordable to families making less than 80% of the area median income. (photo: Jess Zimbabwe)

Housing affordability is a serious concern for cities across the US. The Joint Center for Housing Studies has reported that 35 percent of Americans and half of all renters are “cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is a crisis that impacts not only families who stretch their budgets – and their commutes – to afford appropriate housing, but also the economic competitiveness of cities as businesses struggle to attract and retain qualified workers.

To recognize governments that are leading the way to solutions in housing, the ULI Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Awards recognizes policies and programs that are taking innovative approaches to housing affordability. This year’s call for entries for the Larson Awards, and their companion award program for affordable and workforce housing developments, is open until March 16. The program has honored eight state and local programs since its establishment, six of which went to cities or municipal housing departments:

2014
• City of Austin, Texas, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Designated by the US Census Bureau as the “nation’s capital for population growth,” the city of Austin is tackling its affordable housing shortage through a variety of mechanisms. In addition to the housing trust fund and general obligation bond funding, the city implemented planning and development policies and programs that encourage the production of affordable housing – securing affordability for more than 18,000-units since focusing on this crucial issue.

• City of Pasadena, California, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Since 2000, Pasadena’s housing policy and programs have resulted in the development of over 5,000 housing units in transit-oriented areas, including 1,370 units of affordable and workforce housing. Pasadena’s commitment to its housing vision, community engagement, and informed dialog has produced a highly integrated and effective mix of goals, policies, and programs for its 2014-2021 housing element plan.

2013
• Baltimore Housing, Baltimore, Maryland, for the Vacants to Value Program. After losing nearly a third of its population since the 1950s, Baltimore Housing launched the Vacants to Value program to help attract 10,000 new residents. The program has leveraged over $25 million in private capital and worked across city agencies to transform vacant housing stock into workforce housing.

• Park City Municipal Corporation, Park City, Utah, for creating workforce housing choices in a resort community. Aiming to reduce the burden on local businesses created by high seasonal job turnover, Park City has supported the creation of workforce housing by providing financial incentives including grants, land donation and fee waivers. The city has coupled these efforts with an inclusionary housing ordinance, homebuyer assistance and rental programs for municipal employees to create and maintain workforce housing opportunities and a more sustainable community.

2012
• New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for the New Housing Marketplace Plan. A culture of innovation, leadership and collaboration have helped the New Housing Marketplace Plan to create or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing—nearly 5,000 of which are workforce units – since 2003.

2011
• City of San José, California. Over the last 30 years, the City of San José, the center of Silicon Valley, has become one of the toughest places in the country to find affordable housing. In response, the City adopted a variety of policies and programs that have created 10,600 units of workforce housing. Its policies extend beyond project finance to include long-term planning and periodic revision of its zoning code to reduce regulatory barriers.

Is your community doing something innovative or impactful to address the need for affordable and workforce housing? If so, help spread the word and apply for recognition.

About the authors:

Jess Zimbabwe Headshot 150x150Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

 

Michelle Winters Headshot 150x150Michelle McDonough Winters is Senior Visiting Fellow for Housing at the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. Follow her at @mkmwinters and the Terwilliger Center at @ULIHousing.

LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Open Data Is Finally Making A Dent In Cities

This post originally appeared on Fast Company’s Co.Exist blog.

Chicago-StOpen data can help you find your lost dog, make your commute more efficient, and make government more transparent – if cities will let it. (Getty Images)

What is the best way to get from 12th Street to Main, and should I take the subway, a bike, or rideshare? How many lobbyists are there in my city and more importantly, what are they doing? And, by the way, where did my dog go?

All of these questions and more can now be answered in cities as a result of open data. Beyond just its functional use for an increasingly app-dependent society, data collection and analysis is powering and redefining how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others, in almost every part of life. From who we date, to who we share our commute with to work, a whole new world is being created through access to useful, usable information.

As with a range of leading issues, cities are at the vanguard of this shifting environment. Through increased measurement, analysis, and engagement, open data will further solidify the centrality of cities.

In Chicago, the voice of the mayor counts for a lot. And Mayor Emmanuel has been at the forefront in supporting and encouraging open data in the city, resulting in a strong open government community. The city has more than 600 datasets online, and has seen millions of page views on its data portal. The public benefits have accrued widely with civic initiatives like Chicagolobbyists.org, as well as with a myriad of other open data led endeavors.

Transparency is one of the great promises of open data. Petitioning the government is a fundamental tenet of democracy and many government relations’ professionals perform this task brilliantly. At the same time that transparency is good for the city, it’s good for citizens and democracy. Through the advent of Chicagolobbyists.org, anyone can now see how many lobbyists are in the city, how much they are spending, who they are talking to, and when it is happening.

Throughout the country, we are seeing data driven sites and apps like this that engage citizens, enhance services, and provide a rich understanding of government operations In Austin, a grassroots movement has formed with advocacy organization Open Austin. Through hackathons and other opportunities, citizens are getting involved, services are improving, and businesses are being built.

Data can even find your dog, reducing the number of stray animals being sheltered, with Stray Mapper. The site has a simple map-based web portal where you can type in whether you are missing a dog or cat, when you lost them, and where. That information is then plugged into the data being collected by the city on stray animals. This project, developed by a Code for America brigade team, helps the city improve its rate of returning pets to owners.

It’s not only animals that get lost or at least can’t find the best way home. I’ve found myself in that situation too. Thanks to Ridescout, incubated in Washington, D.C., at 1776, I have been able to easily find the best way home. Through the use of open data available from both cities and the Department of Transportation, Ridescout created an app that is an intuitive mobility tool. By showing me all of the available options from transit to ridesharing to my own two feet, it frequently helps me get from place to place in the city. It looks like it wasn’t just me that found this app to be handy; Daimler recently acquired Ridescout as the auto giant continues its own expansion into the data driven mobility space.

We are a data driven society, from the private sector where consumer data drives the bottom line to the public sector where more and more outputs are being quantified and analyzed. New businesses are being created and existing firms are growing as companies use open data to build products that improve the lives of people living in and visiting cities. In whatever city you are in, data is a tool to make lives easier, create more robust two-way communications between the governing and governed, and increase and improve commerce.

In the National League of Cities’ newly released report, City Open Data Policies: Learning by Doing, we sought to find out what cities are currently doing with open data and what they could be doing far into the future. Working together with our partners at American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, this publication is a resource for cities developing open data policies.

By opening data, cities are developing an unprecedented portal into the operations and functioning of government for the use of and to the benefit of community members, the private sector, and open government advocates. Enhanced data analysis and increased open data availability also allows us to envision a future where city services are radically transformed, leading toward a seamlessness of operations from city government to resident delivery. This forward momentum further reinforces that data has become the infrastructural backbone in the century of the city.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author:Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

Momentum Building as White House Celebrates Progress on Veteran Homelessness

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference about the growing number of elected officials who have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness.

“The fact that right now our country has more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a stain on the soul of this nation,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts and embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among veterans.”

Launched at the White House last month, the Mayors Challenge now includes more than 180 local leaders, as well as support from four Governors.

Earlier in the week, the White House hosted local leaders from across the country to celebrate the success of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. A message from Dr. Jill Biden congratulated communities for housing more than 105,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable homeless, including more than 31,000 veterans.

The events come as cities participating in the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative make significant progress in improving the community systems serving homeless veterans.

Launched in March, the initiative is building on the successes and lessons of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With technical assistance, cities are developing locally tailored systems to help identify the homeless, prioritize them for service, and place them in available housing that can support them based on their individual needs. In Washington, D.C., community stakeholders have already housed more than 200 individuals using their new system.

In addition to developing these systems, some other lessons of the initiative include:

  • San Francisco: The city is dedicating housing resources for veterans not eligible for VA services. In addition, the city is prioritizing veterans within the Public Housing Authority’s plan.
  • Boston: In announcing his participation in the Mayors Challenge and NLC’s Leadership Network, Mayor Walsh launched www.homesforthebrave.boston.gov, a city hosted website where employers can offer jobs and landlords can offer units for homeless veterans.
  • Seattle: The city’s team has begun looking at how to work with surrounding jurisdictions to identify needed housing due to the high cost of rentals.
  • Baltimore: Obtained a $60,000 commitment from the city to use resources raised from the community to pay for move-in expenses, utility arrears, and other costs needed to place the homeless into new homes.
  • Detroit: The community is using staff from the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program to guide homeless individuals through the complex process of finding a home and the services they will need to keep it. These staff members are a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

To help other communities learn about what is happening across the country to end veteran homelessness, NLC hosted a webinar with officials from San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Community Solutions, and The Home Depot Foundation. The webinar outlined four steps and five questions that local leaders can take to end veteran homelessness in their city.

All of these efforts are creating the change needed to end veteran homelessness by the federal goal of 2015, and end chronic homelessness in 2016. Communities are showing that ending veteran homelessness is no longer a dream, but a reality, one city at a time. To support cities, Community Solutions has launched Zero: 2016. Unlike previous efforts, cities must apply to be a part of this effort and have the commitment of key leaders.

To learn more about Zero: 2016 and have your city apply, go to www.zero2016.org.

For more information on NLC’s work visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

More than money: Alternative incentives that benefit companies and communities

Construction in Raleigh, N.C.

Post adapted from Smart Incentives

Specialized services can complement financial incentives, while taking the concept of a partnership between business and community to a new level. Guest blogger Swati Ghosh, the International Economic Development Council‘s Director of Research and Technical Assistance, reports below on an interesting new paper addressing these and other alternative incentives.

Of all the tools that economic developers use to attract businesses to their community, incentives are the most controversial. Typically financial in nature, incentives are direct subsidies to businesses in the form of tax breaks, loans or grants. Proponents maintain that such subsidies are necessary to grow jobs locally as they reduce the cost, or risk, of doing business in a community. Critics, on the other hand, argue that there is no direct link between economic activity and such business subsidies, and some even suggest that they are a drag on economic growth.

Economic developers should closely follow an emerging alternative – programs and services that assist businesses but are not direct financial subsidies. Termed alternative incentives, these are investments in community programs that strengthen the business climate or that help a particular business in a way that benefits the broader community. They are a win-win: For businesses, alternative incentives can reduce the cost or risk of doing business in a community, yet communities retain these investments even if a firm shuts down or relocates to a different community.

IEDC’s Economic Development Research Partners program has developed a new paper focusing on alternative incentives. It is not an argument against the use of financial incentives; rather, it advocates for increased use of alternative incentives either alone or in conjunction with financial incentives. The paper, “More than Money: Alternative Incentives that Benefit Companies and Communities” (PDF), examines five categories of alternative incentives:

  • Talent/Workforce development
  • Real estate and permitting
  • Research and data
  • Networking and promotion
  • Infrastructure improvements

The paper is based on a survey of the IEDC membership to understand usage of over 40 different types of alternative incentives. It also includes several examples of organizations that have successfully utilized alternative incentives for business attraction and expansion, alone or in conjunction with other financial incentives. The paper concludes with recommendations for ways that economic developers can use alternative incentives effectively:

  • Focus on building relationships
  • Examine your organization’s strengths and utilize them creatively
  • Offer a wide spectrum of services
  • Bring along the key stakeholders
  • Focus on the needs of the community

As scrutiny, clawback provisions and other restrictions on the use of financial incentives increase, it may be beneficial to examine other options to support businesses. Alternative incentives not only stay in the community, but bring less of a burden in terms of monitoring and legal costs – benefits that every community and EDO can agree on.

Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting

citizen-engagement-blog

Democracy. In the very root of the word is the notion that it is the people who rule. It is engrained in all Americans that in our country, government is by the people and for the people. Of course, for this to be true, the people must be involved. Citizens must be actively engaged in every level of government if our country is to run as we believe it should.

In recent studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, it has unfortunately been discovered that this ideal is not being met. Citizens are not showing the levels of civic engagement that democracy requires, and that our cities need in order to flourish.

In one study on South Carolina, it was found that while the state’s citizens ranked highly for “traditional forms of political involvement” (voting in national elections and registering to vote), they were near the bottom of state rankings in other, more subtle forms of civic engagement: boycotting products, contacting elected officials, forming strong relationships with neighbors, discussing politics and participating in local meetings regarding matters of school or city policy.

In a separate study looking at Washington, D.C., the findings again made clear that just because members of a community vote, there is no guarantee that they are then engaged in the community in other ways. While residents of D.C. have consistently high rates of voter turnout, they are unlikely to have strong relationships with neighbors, rarely eat dinner with other members of their household and while they volunteer at rates higher than the national average (coming in at 32.2%), this still quite low compared to the number of voters.

Between the two studies, it was found that political and civic engagement, in almost any form, is strongly correlated to not only a person’s income, but also to their level of education. While the studies referenced here look at fairly large population areas (the state of South Carolina as a whole and the city of D.C.), in cities with higher numbers of low-income residents with lower levels of educational attainment, there are clear reasons for concern. As elected officials, it can be challenging enough to work with the many different voices that arrive at the table; it is next to impossible to work with the voices that cannot even be found.

Given that a strong community is one that works on behalf of all its residents, it is imperative that citizens from all walks of life exercise their right to be both civically and politically engaged. As new technology is being developed, it is becoming easier than ever to encourage citizens to raise their voice. Emerging apps allow citizens to express needs for city services in real-time and allow elected officials to engage with residents who might never step foot in City Hall.

textizen-blog

In Washington, D.C., the website “Grade D.C.” has been developed as a way for residents to provide feedback on the quality of city services and departments, from the public school system to the police department to the Department of Employee Services. In allowing the community to assign a grade to the work being done by government-run entities, not only do citizens have a voice to express their appreciation and frustrations, but they are able to see the feedback provided by others, and use that to make informed decisions as to the city agencies with which they choose to interact. By establishing this innovative online format to provide feedback to the city, leaders in D.C. have created a non-threatening way to engage with citizens who may not be willing to go to City Hall, yet have a vested interest in ensuring that city services are provided smoothly and effectively.

In Philadelphia, a similar desire to engage citizens led to the creation of the tool “Textizen,” as one piece of the New Urban Mechanics movement. Now being used in both Boston and Philadelphia, Textizen permits residents to text in their thoughts and opinions on any and all city projects, dramatically increasing the number of voices that are able to be heard on any one issue. Taking this concept a step further, Boston has developed the “Citizens Connect TXT” program, which gives anyone in the city a way to notify the city of local problems, from graffiti in public spaces to unlit streetlights and other safety hazards. In providing a simple way for citizens to contact their local government, these cities are actively encouraging civic engagement on the part of all

As members of the National League of Cities push to see their cities become centers of innovation, it is important to remember the necessity of including all citizens in this push forward. This is by no means a simple job, yet cities around the country are showing that they are able to rise to meet the challenge by thinking outside of the box and truly valuing the many different voices in their communities. When city officials intentionally choose to harness the powers of technology, the ideals of democracy come closer to being achieved, even in a world that has changed immeasurably since our nation was founded.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Advancements in Data-Sharing Are Changing How Government is Run

T-Camp-Blog

Leaders in policy and technology from around the world gather for the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp.

On May 30th and 31st, innovators in government and technology joined together for the 5th annual Transparency Camp, led by the Washington, D.C. based Sunlight Foundation.

Throughout the two-day event, conversation revolved around the dual concepts of government and data, exploring their interconnected nature and the rapid advancements in data that are changing the way our governments run.

Kicking off the camp was Anthea Watson-Strong of the Google Civic Innovation Team. Drawing from the work of Ethan Zuckerman, she focused on the idea that through the use of “high-value data sets,” the internet can lead to “easy, yet impactful” action on the part of citizens.

Much of the rest of the camp focused on deconstructing this concept. What data is valuable for the public to have? How can this be made accessible to residents, and how can they in turn use it to improve their communities and hold their elected officials accountable? Ultimately, how can innovations in data-sharing be used to strengthen our democracy at every level, and especially locally?

The most foundational of these questions, though, is what data is of value to the general public. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is almost all city data can be used in meaningful ways by the public, allowing them to become more informed and engaged citizens.

Take, for example the “out on a limb for data” project underway in New York City. Through an effort to decrease the destructive power and massive clean-up needs of trees falling during storms, the city is using block-by-block pruning information as part of a formula to predict which trees are the most vulnerable. From this, they have found that regular pruning of trees leads to a 22% decrease in emergency cleanups.

While conventional wisdom might suggest that data on tree pruning is not essential for city residents to have, the work being done in New York shows its potential importance, as it can allow community members to better prepare for extreme weather events. If access to data on tree pruning is beneficial to citizens, it’s hard to imagine that there is any sort of data that would not be.

Making Data Available, Accessible & User-Friendly

Given the natural limitations as to the amount of data that can be made accessible in a short period of time, a certain amount of prioritization must be done. Since the increased use of data is meant to be a tool to engage citizens, this prioritization need not be the work of only elected officials and city staff; it can, in fact, be something that engages the whole community.

Philadelphia, for example, has already taken steps to do this through its “Open Data Race.” By giving non-profit organizations an opportunity to propose datasets that, if released, would be helpful in accomplishing their work, Philadelphia has created a platform for residents themselves to prioritize the release of data. Not only are citizens given a voice at the table, but they are able to work in conjunction with the government to help build a better city for all.

Over the years, residents of cities and towns have been forced to struggle with the fact that even when data is made available, it is rarely user-friendly, contained in extensive, unsearchable PDF files at best. With rapid advancements in technology, this problem is quickly being addressed, allowing data that has been deemed useful to the public to rapidly be made accessible to average citizens.

On the website FindTheBest – a research engine focused on both depth and breadth – citizens can complete a search, select “visualize,” and instantly have a graphical depiction of the information that they are looking for. Rather than searching through years of data in order to find useful information, users can instantly see, for example, whereas in 1964, payroll taxes accounted for only 19.5% of the federal tax revenue, today those same taxes comprise 34.15% of total federal tax revenue.

While this technology has not yet been implemented at the local level, it offers a promising direction for the future of data accessibility, allowing for increased use by residents.

Using Data to Engage Residents

In order for data to be a useful tool of a democratic society, it must be more than simply accessible: it must be used. Fortunately, one need only glance around the country to see the incredibly innovative ways in which cities have begun to make use to further engage their residents.

In Salt Lake City, a Snow Plow Tracker has been designed for use in major storms, allowing community members to see exactly where snow plows are working. Chicago has created an annotated map that is intended to help citizens and businesses better understand what the zoning codes in their area actually mean. In San Francisco, data is being used to build maps that show not only where crimes are happening, but also the nature of those crimes in any given area.

In only three examples, the diversity of potential for data use is abundantly clear. With its potential to engage citizens and provide improved city services, data is an integral part of the future of our local governments.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Mayors, Residents Make Big Strides with National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation

This is a guest post written by Steve Creech, Executive Director of the Wyland Foundation.

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With cities across the United States facing water scarcity, five U.S. cities were honored today for the commitment of their residents to making water-saving choices as part of the third annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

The cities of Dallas, TX, Corpus Christi, TX, Huntington Beach, CA, Bremerton, WA, and Crete, NB, led an effort among over 23,000 people across the nation to take 277,742 specific actions over the next year to change the way they use water in their home yard, and community.

Presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA and National League of Cities, the challenge had direct participation from more than 100 U.S. mayors, from San Diego to Miami, FL, who encouraged their residents to participate in the online challenge at mywaterpledge.com.

“Access to a clean and reliable supply of fresh water is fundamental to our lives,” said artist and conservationist Wyland. “Most people do not think about their water footprint and the extent to which water quality issues can impact them personally.”

The challenge comes at a time when population growth, extreme weather patterns, water shortages, and again infrastructure all threaten access to a steady, sustainable supply of water in the United States.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation provides a positive way to reward residents across the country for using water wisely and controlling what goes down the drain and into their local watershed.

By sticking to their commitments, the collective efforts of these residents will reduce national water waste by 1.4 billion gallons, reduce waste sent to landfills by 36 million pounds, eliminate more than 179 thousand pounds of hazardous waste from entering our watersheds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 billion pounds.

Beyond its efforts to foster environmental change, the challenge provides an opportunity for participants from the top five cities to win more than $50,000 in eco-friendly prizes, including a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-In.

City leaders, sustainability directors, and utilities managers who are interested in getting their city involved in the program for 2015 are encouraged to contact the Wyland Foundation at 949-643-7070. To see this year’s final national standings, please visit mywaterpledge.com.

Watch Al Roker & Nancy Stoner, EPA Director of Water, discuss the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

Steve-CreechAbout the author: Steve Creech is executive director for the non-profit Wyland Foundation. He is the co-author of  “Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue,” a fresh look at the importance of water in our communities and throughout the world. Steve is a former environmental news reporter in southern California and currently blogs for Huffington Post.

Business Incentive Initiative

This post was written by Ellen Harpel, founder of Smart Incentives and president of Business Development Advisors LLC (BDA), an economic development and market intelligence consulting firm. Post originally appeared on Smart Incentives blog.

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Local businesses in New York City’s West Village. Source: Flickr user wallyg

City leaders have many concerns about the cost and effectiveness of economic development incentives in their communities, as we learned from the session on economic development financing tools during last year’s Congress of Cities. A new initiative working to develop best practices for evaluating incentives at the state level will help local elected officials whose communities use state incentive programs for business attraction. It should also provide some guidance for cities striving to assess their own local incentive programs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently announced the launch of the Business Incentives Initiative. This Initiative will help improve data collection, management and reporting within state incentive programs in order to “improve decision-makers’ ability to craft policies that deliver the strongest results at the lowest possible cost.”

Pew and the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness will engage leaders from seven states (IN, LA, MD, MI, TN, OK, VA) to develop best practices for evaluating economic development incentives by:

  • Identifying effective ways to manage and assess economic development incentive policies and practices.
  • Improving data collection and reporting on incentive investments.
  • Developing national standards and best practices that states can use to successfully gather and report data on economic development incentives.

As project manager Jeff Chapman explained in an interview with Bloomberg BNA:

This initiative builds on Pew’s ongoing project to help state policymakers implement ongoing evaluation of economic development incentives. As states work to measure the effectiveness of these programs, they often find they lack the data needed to determine whether an incentive is producing the expected outcome. Further, there is currently no source that has identified and compiled the best practices on how to overcome this obstacle.

All states were invited to submit proposals to participate, and seven were selected. They have agreed to commit top decision-makers from economic development, revenue, and other relevant state agencies to work intensively with Pew throughout this 18-month program. Each of these seven states has also already begun to address the challenges associated with economic development incentive program management and evaluation. The Pew team will work with the states to develop and implement tailored solutions for each state, while also paving the way for development of best practices and training that will be available to all states.

I am pleased to be part of the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness team working with Pew on this important effort. Our role will be to leverage our economic development and incentives expertise to provide technical assistance to the states.

Here at Smart Incentives, we have emphasized the importance of data, analysis, transparency and accountability in economic development incentive use. The lack of quality data regarding compliance and effectiveness is a significant problem for the economic development field and policymakers trying to do what’s best for their communities. The Business Incentives Initiative represents a notable step forward in enabling smart incentive use in all states.

HarpelEllen Harpel is President of Business Development Advisors (BDA) and Founder of Smart Incentives. She has over 17 years of experience in the economic development field, working with leaders at the local, state and national levels to increase business investment and job growth in their communities. 

Contact: eharpel@businessdevelopmentadvisors.com or ellen@smartincentives.org. Follow Ellen on Twitter @SmartIncentives.