Opportunity for Cities to Help Young People Achieve Financial Success

NLC is providing guidance to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor on their new technical assistance opportunity to help cities include financial capability in their youth employment programs.

American Apparel Holds Open Call For Jobs In New York City Young jobseekers attend an open jobs call. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Each year, millions of youth in cities across the country participate in programs designed to help them secure employment. Many of these young people hail from low-income or distressed communities and do not have access to the same kind of educational and career opportunities as their more affluent peers.

Often, a lack of attachment to the labor force can lead to risk of gang activity or criminal involvement. Youth employment programs, many of which are led by municipalities, have the potential to provide crucial pathways to economic opportunity and increased social mobility for participating young jobseekers.

Being in the labor force at a young age has benefits for young people, their families and their communities. It often contributes much-needed income to families that are struggling to get by. It also encourages civic engagement and provides valuable job skills and work experience that can lead to long-term, stable employment. Moreover, when young people are employed, cities benefit from reduced crime and overall economic development.

Having a job also allows young people to be more financially independent. However, millions of young people enter the workforce without basic money management skills or knowledge about today’s complex financial systems, and these skills are not typically taught on the job. And because financial knowledge is not a core component of our education system, many young people lack the necessary awareness and skills to become financially responsible adults.

To improve the ability of young people to effectively manage their finances – from spending and saving to building credit and keeping debt manageable – NLC is working with two federal agencies to help city leaders identify ways to incorporate financial capability into youth employment programs.

As part of a broader project on financial capability and youth employment, NLC is providing guidance to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the U.S. Department of Labor on their just-announced technical assistance opportunity for up to 25 cities. Assistance will focus on ways cities can ensure that financial capability training and access to safe and affordable financial products are available for young jobseekers and workers.

For more information on how your city can receive this technical assistance, check out CFPB’s blog post and read the criteria for submission. Letters of interest are due to the CFPB by Monday, April 20, 2015.

Heidi-Headshot
About the Author
: Heidi Goldberg is the Program Director for Early Childhood & Family Economic Success in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Heidi on Twitter at @GoldbergHeidi.

What President Obama’s New TechHire Initiative Can Do For Cities

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the mayor of a big city or a small town – you understand that the economy is dynamic now, and you can’t just stand still; you can’t rest on your laurels.”

– President Barack Obama

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"At NLC’s Congressional City Conference on Monday, President Obama addressed an enthusiastic crowd of over 2,000 mayors and councilmembers from small towns and large cities. The President used this opportunity to announce a brand new initiative, TechHire. Watch the video of his announcement. (Jason Dixson/jasondixson.com)

The President’s TechHire initiative is intended to create a pipeline of tech workers for the 21st century economy, and help local leaders connect tech training programs to available jobs. As the President noted, “right now, America has more job openings than at any point since 2001… Over half a million of those jobs are technology jobs.”

The 20 communities that the White House is holding up as models – the list includes cities such as St. Louis, Louisville and San Antonio alongside high-tech havens such as San Francisco – have demand for tech jobs that appears to outstrip supply. But in many communities, employers may be overlooking talented applicants because they don’t have four-year degrees. As the president observed, a college degree is not necessary for many positions in the tech field. “Folks can get the skills they need for these jobs in newer, streamlined, faster training programs,” he said. These 20 TechHire communities will help employers link up and find and hire potential employees based on their skills and not just their résumés.

Cities already engaged in efforts to boost their rate of postsecondary credential attainment, including training programs, such as those participating in the Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnerships for Attainment initiative and Kresge Foundation-supported partnerships, can take advantage of a new competitive grant program under TechHire. The Obama Administration is launching a $100 million competition for innovative ideas to train and employ people who are underrepresented in tech.

TechHire aims to reach women and people of color, who are still underrepresented in this sector, as well as veterans and lower-income workers, who might have the aptitude for tech jobs but lack the opportunity to access them.

Overall, as concerns about a “skills gap” continue to abound – even without clear evidence of how quickly employers would grow their workforces if more skilled potential employees presented themselves for hiring – the Obama Administration is taking a bold step forward to offer employers what they’ve been asking for – more qualified workers who can fill the demand for tech jobs.

Andrew Moore About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

The Best Lifestyle Might Be the Cheapest, Too

This is a guest post by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It originally appeared here.

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? I think it would be nearly free if you did it right.

This is a big deal because people aren’t saving enough for retirement, and many folks are underemployed. If the economy can’t generate enough money for everyone to pay for a quality lifestyle today, perhaps we can approach it from the other direction and lower the cost of living.

Consider energy costs. We already know how to build homes that use zero net energy. So that budget line goes to zero if you build a city from scratch. Every roof will be intelligently oriented to the sun, and every energy trick will be used in the construction of the homes. (I will talk about the capital outlay for solar panels and whatnot later.)

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I can imagine a city built around communal farming in which all the food is essentially free. Imagine every home with a greenhouse. All you grow is one crop in your home, all year, and the Internet provides an easy sharing system as well as a way to divide up the crops in a logical way. I share my cucumbers and in return get whatever I need from the other neighbors’ crops via an organized ongoing sharing arrangement. My guess is that using the waste water (treated) and excess heat from the home you could grow food economically in greenhouses. If you grow more than you eat, the excess is sold in neighboring towns, and that provides enough money for you to buy condiments, sauces, and stuff you can’t grow at home.

Medical costs will never go to zero, but recent advances in medical testing technology (which I have seen up close in start-up pitches) will drive the costs of routine medical services down by 80% over time. That’s my guess, based on the several pitches I have seen.

Now add Big Data to the mix and the ability to catch problems early (when they are inexpensive to treat) is suddenly tremendous.

Now add IBM’s Watson technology (artificial intelligence) to the medical system and you will be able to describe your symptoms to your phone and get better-than-human-doctor diagnoses right away. (Way better. Won’t even be close.) So doctor visits will become largely unnecessary except for emergency room visits, major surgeries, and end-of-life stuff.

 

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Speaking of end-of-life, assume doctor-assisted-suicide is legal by the time this city is built. I plan to make sure that happens in California on the next vote. Other states will follow. In this imagined future you can remove much of the unnecessary costs of the cruel final days of life that are the bulk of medical expenses.

Now assume the city of the future has exercise facilities nearby for everyone, and the city is designed to promote healthy living. Everyone would be walking, swimming, biking, and working out. That should reduce healthcare costs.

Now imagine that because everyone is growing healthy food in their own greenhouses, the diet of this new city is spectacular. You’d have to make sure every home had a smoothie-maker for protein shakes. And let’s say you can buy meat from the outside if you want it, so no one is deprived. But the meat-free options will improve from the sawdust and tofu tastes you imagine now to something much more enjoyable over time. Healthy eaters who associate with other healthy eaters share tricks for making healthy food taste amazing.

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

 

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That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

I assume that someday online education will be far superior to the go-to-school model. Online education improves every year while the classroom experience has started to plateau. Someday every home will have what I call an immersion room, which is a small room with video walls so you can immerse yourself in history, or other studies, and also visit other places without leaving home. (Great for senior citizens especially.) So the cost of education will drop to zero as physical schools become less necessary.

When anyone can learn any skill at home, and any job opening is easy to find online, the unemployment rate should be low. And given the low cost of daily living, folks can afford to take a year off to retool and learn new skills.

The repair and maintenance costs of homes can drop to nearly zero if you design homes from the start to accomplish that goal. You start by using common windows, doors, fixtures, and mechanical systems from a fixed set of choices. That means you always have the right replacement part nearby. Everyone has the same AC units, same Internet routers, and so on. If something breaks, a service guy swaps it out in an hour. Or do it yourself. If you start from scratch to make your homes maintenance-free, you can get close. You would have homes that never need paint, with floors and roofs that last hundreds of years, and so on.

Today it costs a lot to build a home, but most of that cost is in the inefficiency of the process. In the future, homes will be designed to the last detail using CAD, and factory-cut materials of the right size will appear on the job site as a snap-together kit with instructions printed on each part. I could write a book on this topic, but the bottom line is that home construction is about 80% higher than it needs to be even with current technology.

The new city would be built on cheap land, by design, so land costs would be minimal. Construction costs for a better-than-today condo-sized home would probably be below $75,000 apiece. Amortized over 15 years the payments are tiny. And after the 15th year there is no mortgage at all. (The mortgage expense includes the solar panels, greenhouses, etc.)

Transportation would be cheap in this new city. Individually-owned automobiles would be banned. Public transportation would be on-demand and summoned by app (like Uber).

And the self-driving cars would be cheap to build. Once human drivers are out of the picture you can remove all of the safety features because accidents won’t happen. And you only summon a self-driving car that is the size you need. There is no reason to drag an empty back seat and empty trunk everywhere you go. And if you imagine underground roads, the cars don’t need to be weather-proof. And your sound system is your phone, so the car just needs speakers and Bluetooth. Considering all of that, self-driving cars might someday cost $5,000 apiece, and that expense would be shared across several users on average. And imagine the cars are electric, and the city produces its own electricity. Your transportation budget for the entire family might be $200 per month within the city limits.

The cost of garbage service could drop to nearly zero if homes are designed with that goal in mind. Your food garbage would go back to the greenhouse as mulch. You wouldn’t have much processed food in this city, so no cans and bottles to discard. And let’s say you ban the postal service from this new city because all they do is deliver garbage anyway. (All bills will be online.) And let’s say if you do accumulate a bag of garbage you can just summon a garbage vehicle to meet you at the curb using the same app you use for other vehicles. By the time you walk to the curb, the vehicle pulls up, and you toss the bag in.

I think a properly-designed city could eliminate 80% of daily living expenses while providing a quality of life far beyond what we experience today. And I think this future will have to happen because the only other alternative is an aggressive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor by force of law. I don’t see that happening.

Scott AdamsAbout the Author: Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic series. He can be reached on Twitter at @ScottAdamsSays. You can also find Dilbert on Facebook.

Local Government Employment Buoys Stagnant Public Sector

Today’s BLS February jobs report shows a slight improvement in public sector employment, with local government employment responsible for the majority of the gains.

Total public sector employment is up 7,000 jobs in February; local governments added 4,000 jobs, and state governments added 3,000. There were no gains in Federal government employment. Within local government employment, local governments (excluding education) added 2,600 jobs, and local schools added 1,200.

Despite these improvements, local government employment remains 512,000 jobs below its July 2008 post-recession peak.

March jobs report graphic

View the January Local Government Jobs Report.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Recent FCC Proceedings Highlight Importance of Equity, Local Control

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Speaks On Net NeutralityFormer FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks to the media on the importance of net neutrality on December 1, 2010 at the headquarters of the FCC in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.

Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.

Municipal Broadband

Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.

This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”

Open Internet/Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.

The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.

The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.

Better for Cities

The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

A Quick Look at All Local Government Cases on This Year’s Supreme Court Docket

Summary of all local government cases on the 2014-2015 Supreme Court docketThe Supreme Court’s 2014-2015 docket is now complete. While the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases will receive the most attention, the docket is chock-full of cases significant to local government. (Jung Soo Kang/Getty Images)

The State and Local Legal Center’s (SLLC) Midterm Review article summarizes all the cases accepted and already decided that will affect local government. Expect decisions in all the cases by the end of June.

Here are some highlights:

Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona and Sheehan v. City & County of San Francisco are probably the most significant cases of the term for local government. Depending on how the Court rules, both could impact every city and county in the United States. The issue in Reed is whether sign codes may treat some categories of temporary signs more favorably than others. If the Court holds they cannot, virtually all local governments will have to rewrite their sign codes. In Sheehan the Court will decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to arresting a mentally ill suspect who is armed and violent.

The question in Los Angeles v. Patel is whether a hotel registry ordinance which allow police officers to inspect registries without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. Even if your city or county doesn’t have a hotel registry ordinance it is likely to be affected by this case. In many states mobile home parks, second-hand dealers like pawnshops and junkyards, scrap metal dealers, and massage parlors are subject to registration and inspection laws and ordinances.

The Court has already decided one of the two Fourth Amendment traffic stop cases it will hear this term. In Heien v. North Carolina the Court held that a police officer’s reasonable misunderstanding that North Carolina required two working rear brake lights did not invalidate a traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States the Court will decide whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by requiring a driver to stay a few minutes after an already-completed traffic stop to wait for back up before his canine performed a dog sniff.

In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project the Court will decide whether disparate-impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. This is the third time the Court has agreed to hear this issue; the two previous cases settled. Local governments have found themselves on both sides of this issue.

Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans will be the Court’s second ruling on the newly-minted government speech doctrine. The Court will decide whether Texas can reject a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate Flag because license plates are “government speech.”

The Court will decide a number of employment cases this term including EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch. The issue is whether an employer can be sued for failing to accommodate an employee/applicant’s religion because the employer failed to ask if a religious accommodation was needed. Until this case the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the applicant/employee had to ask for a religious accommodation.

While the Court has been clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits excessive force against pretrial detainees the Court has not been clear about what exactly that means. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson the Court will articulate the substantive requirements for an excessive force claim brought by a pretrial detainee

T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell is one of the few local government cases already decided. The Court held that local governments must provide reasons when denying an application to build a cell phone tower. The reasons may be included in council meeting minutes issued at the same time as the denial letter.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

In ACA Argument, Justices Kennedy and Roberts Leave Everyone Guessing

Supreme Court facadeIn the case of Justice Kennedy, it was his questions; regarding Chief Justice Roberts, it was his silence… in both cases, cities were left guessing about the future of federal health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) after today’s oral argument. (Getty Images)

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in King v. Burwell, where it will decide whether federal health insurance exchanges, operating in 34 states, can offer subsidies to middle and low income purchasers of insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Simply put, the Court must decide whether it agrees with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that the following statutory language, “established by the State,” can include federal exchanges too.

All eyes and ears were on Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts during the argument. Justice Kennedy is the Court’s “swing” Justice, and Chief Justice Roberts crucially concluded in the first Supreme Court challenge to the ACA that the individual mandate is a constitutional “tax.”

The moment of the argument most likely to be focused on until the Court resolves this case by the end of June was Justice Kennedy asking Michael Carvin, the challengers’ attorney, not once but twice whether a “serious constitutional problem” or a “serious constitutional question” would arise if the Court concluded that federal exchanges could not offer subsidies.  Wouldn’t states then be “coerced” into establishing exchanges to “avoid disastrous consequences”?

Justice Kennedy went on to ask a number of questions of the federal government’s attorney Solicitor General Donald Verrilli too including, at the very end of the argument, whether it made sense to give the IRS the big task of interpreting this statute when billions of dollars are at stake.

After General Verrilli responded that when statutes are ambiguous agencies are tasked with interpreting them whether they raise questions big or small, Chief Justice Roberts chimed in asking whether a subsequent administration could change an agency interpretation. By not asking a question at the heart of this case, not much can be read into his question.

More generally, the argument veered back and forth from the Justices trying determine the best interpretation of the statute to the Justices asking about the practical problems that would arise if subsidies weren’t available. Unsurprisingly, the liberal Justices generally asked questions of the challengers’ attorney and the conservative Justices asked questions of the Solicitor General.

Justice Kagan led the questioning of the challenger’s attorney and Justices Scalia and Alito peppered the Solicitor General with questions. Notably, Justice Scalia asked the Solicitor General whether Congress would really just do nothing if the Court ruled against the federal government. And Justice Alito asked why so few states with federal exchanges filed a brief supporting the federal government.

Both sides tried to claim that, in this case, federalism was on their side.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Creating a Legacy of Service: How to Engage Citizens

This is a guest post by Mayor Dayne Walling, Flint, Mi. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 1 - flint, miWith the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, Mayor Dayne Walling and the city of Flint, Mi., were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint. (image courtesy of citiesofservice.org)

The city of Flint is making great strides in transforming the city block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Our Cities of Service Love Your Block initiative is a critical component of our strategy to harness the power of service and citizens to make a real, measurable impact on the ground as we aim to win the fight against urban blight. As an AmeriCorps alumnus, I believe in the power of citizen service and understand the significant impact of people working together toward a common goal. In Flint, we aren’t only engaging community members to volunteer, but also asking them to help us plan. We want to make sure the things we do are answering the needs of our citizens. The more time and effort we invest up front, the more invested our community members will be for the long term.

Flint became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2009, when I signed the Declaration of Service and committed to using impact volunteering to tackle the challenges of neighborhood blight and emergency preparedness. I joined the coalition because I value the role that Cities of Service plays in helping mayors engage citizen volunteers, forge connections across cities, and bring awareness to the issues that cities are facing.

To accelerate neighborhood revitalization efforts and address the massive challenges related to urban blight in Flint, I launched the Love Your City campaign in 2012. With the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, we were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint all over the city.

We are sustaining and advancing Love Your City through new partnerships with businesses, as well as community and faith-based organizations. Because of our demonstrated success in the first year, we received a second round of funding from Cities of Service and the latest outcomes speak for themselves: to date, citizen volunteers in Flint – in partnership with city agencies and local nonprofits – have revitalized 95 city blocks, cleaned and maintained nearly 300 blighted properties, hauled away more than 2 million pounds of yard waste and trash, and created 116 green spaces and community gardens. Love Your City is truly a movement that is making long-lasting change in the livability of our city and in how citizens feel about their blocks and neighborhoods.

Love Your City is now part of implementing Flint’s new master plan, Imagine Flint, the city’s first comprehensive, long-range plan in over 50 years, developed with input from a diverse group of more than 5,000 Flint residents and community stakeholders. With Imagine Flint as our guide, we will continue to address challenges across our city, including improving public safety, emergency preparedness, opportunities for youth, health, and reducing blight with service-fueled solutions like Love Your Block.

We continue to face significant challenges and our road to recovery will not be easy. However, I am confident that with engaged citizens, targeted opportunities, and dedicated community leaders, Flint will emerge stronger than ever before.

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

Love Your Block: How Birmingham Citizens are Transforming Their City, One Block at a Time

This is a guest post by Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., Birmingham, Ala. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 2 - birmingham, ala.The office of Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with various local organizations in order to revitalize communities in Birmingham, Ala. (image courtesy of citiesofservice.org)

In Birmingham, implementing Love Your Block is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. Love Your Block gives my residents the opportunity to create projects that will have a deep impact on their neighborhood and ultimately improve the health, safety, and well being of the whole city.

Birmingham became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2012 – and committed to making an impact by revitalizing neighborhoods one block at a time. I was proud to receive a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant so we could tackle neighborhood blight in a collaborative and actionable way. As recommended in the Cities of Service Love Your Block blueprint, my office engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with organizations such as HandsOn Birmingham, Home Depot, and the Alabama Power Foundation in order to make a significant impact.

In the first year of Love Your Block Birmingham, we exceeded all of our impact metrics and goals. Thousands of Birmingham volunteers cleaned more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, disposed of more than 70,000 pounds of trash and debris, planted over 500 trees and revitalized 40 blocks. We were able to identify 15 future neighborhoods for ongoing revitalization projects and leveraged 13 additional funding sources to support neighborhood revitalization projects. We also realized that we didn’t just make the streets cleaner – we brought people together to work alongside one another and empowered our citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and make a real and measurable impact.

After we completed the first round of our Love Your Block initiatives, I recognized that there was still a lot more work to do. Building on our early success, I pledged to make Love Your Block a part of my citywide strategy to make Birmingham a healthier and safer city through my RISE Birmingham program. With the support of an additional Impact Volunteering Fund grant from Cities of Service, we were able to distribute 20 mini-grants to support neighborhood groups in new and continued revitalization projects. RISE Birmingham has now become a movement across the city – we plan to revitalize 60 blocks, remove 90,000 pounds of trash and debris, clean 35,000 square feet of graffiti, plant 300 new trees, and conduct 7 neighborhood clean sweeps. We have also added a community policing component and are forming neighborhood watch groups to promote a sense of pride and community for neighborhood residents.

Like so many cities in America today, Birmingham has faced and continues to face many challenges. As mayor of this great city, it is my duty, privilege, and honor to bring people and organizations together to solve our challenges. I want every resident to know that I will continue to work on the issues about which they care most deeply and I am constantly focused on moving Birmingham forward in the best way I know how: through citizen engagement and collaboration among nonprofit, public, and private partners. Love Your Block has become an essential piece in the puzzle for a brighter future for Birmingham and I look forward to continuing to find out what it really means for residents to love their blocks by deepening our impact across the city.