Three Things Small Cities Teach Us About Civic Engagement

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Big cities and big data tend to get most of the attention in publications and on industry panels. Rapid urbanization and the explosion of data are headlining trends. In reality, however, the United States is a nation of small towns. According to Census Bureau information, the median American lives in a city with a population around 17,500. Half of Americans live in communities that are even smaller.

In order to ground our conversations about technology, data, and urbanization in the reality of cities where the typical American lives, it’s useful to talk about how smaller-sized communities are benefitting from data and technology at price tags they can reasonably afford.

“It doesn’t require a huge staff to get insight from data,” Franklin Williams, president of Tyler Technologies’ Data and Insights Division, explains. “With the right technology solutions, what previously seemed impossible is very achievable. The key for any city, large or small, is to find the right partner that can provide the best solutions for each unique situation. Tackling a city’s specific needs moves agencies from tech problems to business solutions, which is a win at any size.”

Small cities not only effectively harness data for actionable insight through modern technology, they do so in a way that any-sized city can adopt with low budget impact. Following are the top three lessons we can learn from small cities:

Solve problems and build capacity along the way.

Small cities can’t afford independent data analytics offices or digital services teams. Instead, their existing program staff need to embed data analytics into their normal, day-to-day work.

In Plant City, Florida, Chief Accountant Amy Clark proved that creative problem solving is at its best when existing assets are deployed in innovative ways. She recognized that the city’s every day software tools could be easily enhanced to expedite maximum FEMA reimbursements after Hurricane Irma. Because the city’s core ERP and financial systems integrated with the project accounting and reporting systems, Clark created a new Project IRMA project code without attaching a specific general ledger account to it. This allowed charges from every department to automatically flow through the project as well as the appropriate line-item in each associated department’s budget. This ensured accuracy of disaster-related records and timely federal reimbursement.

Solving problems, big or small, is easier when the right infrastructure is in place. This is particularly true in the case of natural disaster. Marco Island, Florida, also dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Because the right technology was in place, the small city, (18,000 residents during the off-season), was able to effectively handle a permit volume that doubled to 11,000 in one year when residents sought to rebuild. Online permitting, digital plan reviews, and digital record keeping enabled residents to rebuild faster and efficiently recover.

Think regionally.

Small cities and towns within Fulton County, Georgia, collaborated with the county in a transparency program surrounding programs funded by a special-purpose sales tax for transportation. The result is a joint, interactive dashboard, supported by the county, that is accessible to the public and offers insight into project cost, spending, and timelines.

Municipalities in Lake County, Illinois, have gained access to modern technology to streamline inspection services through a reduced-price licensing structure with the county. Municipalities county-wide can opt in and purchase only those licenses they need, without purchasing an entire software package. By opening up its back-end software to municipalities, Lake County streamlined everyone’s work through a shared system. Manual routing of inspections paperwork between the municipalities and the county has been eliminated and replaced with a direct flow of information from request to inspector. In addition, Lake County’s staff is broadly trained on the shared software and is available to municipalities for technical assistance.

Up-skill your existing staff.

Small cities can’t compete in hiring experienced data scientists. They can, however, take advantage of low-cost data literacy training to boost the skills and capacity of their existing staff. The skills that specifically need to be addressed are those that enable staff to contextualize, analyze, glean insights from, and share data using appropriate technology; to frame any problem (or goal) of core service delivery in a data-driven context.

East Point, Georgia, population 35,000, hosted a performance accelerator workshop for staff to identify meaningful performance measures from data that they can use to track progress toward specific strategic goals. Staff learned how data can be leveraged in their daily work for actionable insight. Participants developed goals, identified programs that impact those goals, and created key performance indicators that tracked progress in those programs. All of these efforts aligned with the organization’s strategic plan.

As I say when I facilitate data academies, data is an every-department resource and something that every department can successfully use. Whether in waste control, recreation or the fire department, people need to move past the idea that data is just something the IT folks do. With the right skills, everyone can execute analysis and gain insight on their own.

Small cities are proving that the benefits of data are available to all organizations, regardless of size. By solving problems first, cities can increase efficiency and capacity while gaining actionable insight. Thinking regionally can enhance transparency and improve public trust while expanding collaboration with larger organizations for mutual benefit. Finally, as staff across an organization have opportunity to learn, build, and practice skills, individual career movement is enhanced while staff also contribute meaningfully back to the organization in a scheme that resonates at all levels.

About the Author: Oliver Wise is the Director of Socrata Data Academy at Tyler Technologies. In this role, he helps governments develop the skills, leadership strategies, and execution tactics necessary to harness of the potential of data to transform public services. Prior to joining Tyler, Oliver was the founding director of the City of New Orleans Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA), the City’s first data analytics team.