A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact on cities as expensive, big business projects for only a fraction of the price.

Songdo, South Korea has been billed as the world’s first “smart city.” (Image: Gale International)

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

Today, when we hear the term “smart city”, massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies come to mind. Take the $35 billion+ city of Songdo, South Korea, which was built from the ground-up with the help of Cisco. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40 percent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the U.S. to be included in the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED Accredited district in South Korea). Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system, which funnels garbage from every kitchen in the city directly to a central waste processing center. Only seven employees handle waste for the whole city, and there are no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

But how can you make a smart city if you don’t have several billion dollars or the ability to build a development from the ground up? Aren’t expensive projects by big companies the only way to make your city smart? Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact with a fraction of the price. The creation of small smart cities companies may seem unrelated to any municipality’s actions, but cities can do a lot to encourage and empower these innovations.

For example, the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston focuses on incorporating futuristic design and technology into the city’s development. Its willingness to invest resources and take chances on new technology has helped small companies succeed while ensuring that Boston remains innovative. I work for one of those small companies, Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spinoff founded in 2014. With the support of New Urban Mechanics, Soofa was able to pilot 10 pieces of smart urban furniture — solar-powered charging benches — just a few months after creating the first prototype.

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

The feedback gained from this pilot phase allowed Soofa to make major bench improvements and complete their first production run this spring, with benches being installed in eight U.S. states and three countries.

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

Across the river, Cambridge was also willing to take a risk on a new startup by being an early adopter of Soofa Benches and a R&D partner. The Soofa Bench features a sensor brain that detects the environment around it — from noise and nitrogen levels to humidity and temperature. Cambridge realized that this wealth of data gained from urban environments can be harnessed for more effective city planning, evaluating the efficacy of various programs and developments, and most importantly, helping citizens enjoy their urban spaces! As such, Cambridge was willing to be Soofa’s R&D partner as they develop the most comprehensive sensor brain and data platform possible. This R&D project was recently the feature of a Governing Magazine article which discusses in greater detail Soofa’s data collection capabilities.

So, why are small interventions better? When entrepreneurs envision ways to improve the city, they dream big, but are constrained by cost and practicality. The resulting products have big potential with a much smaller price tag. Installing a bench is much easier than retrofitting aged infrastructure with sensors, and more cost effective. A solar-powered bench can seem like an unnecessary expenditure, especially to smaller cities, but this investment enables cities to be more efficient and enjoyable in the future.

Creating a space where local entrepreneurs can have their city-improving ideas heard and potentially supported by city governments is critical to the creation of smart cities. Even if no investments are made, gaining the input of stakeholders from professors to designers and engineers is invaluable to future city planning. Chicago’s Array of Things project is another great example of a city using their valuable local academic and technological resources to create a low-cost, high-impact smart cities intervention.

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa, participates in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC's 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa. Soofa was recently invited to participate in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Chicago still took input from smart-cities giants like Cisco, but made a conscious choice to loop in local talent for the research and design behind the project. Though here we encourage cities to support small companies creating smart cities interventions, we must give big companies credit where credit is due. Without their push to encourage smart cities projects, smaller companies would never be able to sell their products or get funding — because no one would know what a smart city is! The research, awareness and funding from major companies in the smart cities space has been invaluable. That said, any city can be cost-effectively made into a smart city through small interventions powered by small businesses.

So, how do you future-proof your city? Prioritize the creation of civic innovation offices similar to New Urban Mechanics to support local talent and small businesses. Small, agile interventions end up having a big impact.

About the Author: Isabel Munson is the Data Strategy Lead at Soofa, an Internet-of-Things company dedicated to creating social, sustainable and smart cities. Her other musings on smart cities, #Soofatalk, may be found at www.soofa.co or @mysoofa.

How Three Cities Have Taken 311 Into the Digital Age

This is a guest post by Gayatri Mohan. This article was originally published as part of a 311 Day series on the PublicStuff blog on March 11, 2015.

Newsom Makes Announcement With Obama's Top Information Officer Vivek KundraU.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra (L) talks with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom after a press conference announcing the launch of a national initiative to open 311 customer service centers to developers March 3, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Newsom and Kundra launched the national Open 311 Application Programming Interface (API), which will allow software developers to create web applications that will allow the general public to make service requests via smart phones directly to 311 systems bypassing often inundated call centers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Remember Life Before 311?

Residents lucky enough to live in communities that operate 311 centers know the convenience of having one number to access a host of services and resources. Many of the communities that have used 311 the longest – places like Pensacola, Fla., McAllen, TX, New York City and Philadelphia – have benefited from evolving their 311 centers with the times. First launched for landline phones, they’ve seen a vast improvement in service delivery and city operations by merging call centers with other low-cost channels like mobile, web and SMS. Integrating the latest in communication mediums has not only delivered a consistent resident service experience, but also minimized the time cities spend entering and routing duplicate resident requests.

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311 call center success in the cities of Pensacola, Fla., Philadelphia and McAllen, Texas. (PublicStuff)

Establish a Clear Communication Strategy

Since Pensacola’s launch of its Pensacola 311 program, the city has achieved a 100% request closure rate because of its clear communication strategy to the public. For example, although certain request types on the web portal are categorized under the Police department, the city clarifies that emergency situations still need to be reported to 911 to avoid delayed response. To further facilitate the request submission process, the city offers additional resources like contact information for the Energy and Sanitation departments, so residents don’t have to go searching for them through the city website. Providing such detailed information right at the resident’s fingertips means that city officials spend less time answering common inquiries, and more time working to fix important community issues.

Build Easily Accessible Resources

Similar to Pensacola, the city of McAllen has built out a thorough library of answers to avoid spending time on commonly asked questions. Helpful articles like “Everything You Need to Know About Brush in McAllen” pop up as a resident tries to submit a request to provide immediate answers and open up time for call center staff to attend to more pressing issues. Making helpful resources accessible through various channels has allowed the city to achieve a 98% request closure rate through its call center alone.

Integrate With New Technology

Philadelphia is one of the largest US cities with a call center, and has taken more than 6 million calls with a wait time of less than 40 seconds and average call duration of 3 minutes. To offset the incredible call volume, Philadelphia has integrated its call center operations with their mobile and web platform, Philly 311. Building a connected system on the staff-end has allowed city officials to track and update submitted requests simultaneously across all platforms, avoiding duplication and manual data entry.

Using effective workflow management systems, cities have been able to route information to the right city official equipped with the required tools to fix and close out requests on time. This encourages residents to participate in improving their neighborhoods, improves the quality of community interactions, and raises public trust in government to create a continuous loop of constructive dialogue and feedback.

Gayatri Mohan bio photo 175x175About the Author: Gayatri Mohan is Marketing Team Lead at PublicStuff, a civic software company based in New York. She can be reached at gayatri@publicstuff.com.

Regulatory Reform, Data Analytics and Local Food Systems: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

boston_1_fullsizeCities like Boston have recently begun a new chapter in economic development by taking an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy. (Getty Images)

Grab your scissors, it’s time to cut red tape for local businesses. Whether it’s the dizzying paper trail, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, the local regulatory process is ripe for reform. NLC profiled the three key strategies for untangling the knots of business regulations, and also highlighted how several cities are using a “more carrot, less stick” approach. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a guest blog post for NLC on how he is making Boston more business friendly, including building an online permitting system. The Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School recently launched a comprehensive, online guide to help cities plan out their own regulatory reform initiatives. (Side note, here’s a great article from The Week on other ways cities can support businesses).

Data analytics is driving more effective economic development… There were a couple great stories this past month about how data analytics is improving local government outcomes, particularly for economic development. For example, Transit Labs is partnering with Detroit to use city data to improve inefficient bus routes. Also Louisville and Raleigh are among a group of cities using public feedback on the restaurant review website Yelp to prioritize health inspections for businesses.

…and collecting city data is more valuable than ever. The data analytics movement is creating new dialogue around what is the most effective data for cities to collect and analyze. To this end, Smart Incentives shared advice on how to measure the actual impact of economic development incentive agreements, not just the costs associated with them. The Kauffman Foundation also released a briefing on the four best indicators to measure a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. (NLC also has a performance management guidebook for cities).

Pioneering local food systems. Creating a local food ecosystem is a win-win situation for food providers and community member. The city of Portland, Maine, is emerging as a pioneer in the local food system scene. Mayor Michael Brennan developed the Healthy Sustainable Food Systems Initiative a couple years ago pledging that 50 percent of food at public schools, universities, and hospitals will be from local sources. To help other cities create their own local food ecosystems, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) recently held a course on financing local food systems (follow @CDFA_Update to find out when it will be offered again).

Local government is still the leader in public sector job growth. This month’s Local Jobs Report found that, once again, local government is leading public sector job growth. Both federal and state governments lost jobs, but local government gained 3,000 jobs in March. Our analysis also reviews monthly employment trends from 2008 to now, and looks at whether or not cities are hiring back public safety positions that were lost after the recession due to budget cuts.

Religious freedom in Indiana? Talk about voting with your feet. In the wake of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s passage of a controversial new religious freedom law, the business community is responding by cancelling expansion plans and prohibiting travel to the state. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, is delaying a planned $40 million expansion set to create 1,000 local jobs over the next five years until the law’s ramifications are made clear. The list of other organizations that are banning activity in Indiana includes major companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Yelp. Meanwhile, Governor Pence is working to clarify the intent of the law, and its supporters are explaining that similar legislation already exists in 19 states without comparable pushback.

For a laugh. Or maybe for a shudder. The city of Austin wants you to visit its cemeteries. No, really. The city is developing a master plan for its burial grounds to turn the abandoned (and perhaps creepy?) spaces into public places where people choose to visit. The city’s plans include gravestone repairs, public programming, and other revitalization efforts.

What we’re reading. HuffPo column on how McDonald’s is fighting Seattle’s new minimum wage law. San Francisco Fed’s analysis of whether or not place-based policies like enterprise zones create jobs. A thought piece from Jerry Newfarmer on why people, not technology, are the unsung heroes of innovation in cities.

(Read the previous monthly roundups from January and February.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Can Cities Beat the Fiscal Odds?

Can Cities Beat the Fiscal Odds?Beating the fiscal odds means cities are able to not only balance budgets, but continue to pioneer innovative solutions to the country’s most intractable challenges and lay the foundations for fiscal and economic growth. (Getty Images)

As the economy continues to show hopeful yet nascent signs of recovery, cities remain cautious about their fiscal condition. They continue to face rising costs of services, stark infrastructure needs, employee obligations, and omnipresent state and federal funding cuts and uncertainties. Still, cities have proven remarkably resilient. Despite a couple of high-profile cases, the vast majority of cities are balancing their budgets and making good on their debt.

But this hasn’t come easy or without consequences. The harsh reality is that municipal governments are operating at 90 percent of their pre-recession revenues, with little growth in sight and limited prospects for tapping into growth sectors within their local economies. Balancing local budgets in this environment is an ongoing process of revenue and expenditure choices that affect the types, levels and costs of services provided in a community. These choices often involve tradeoffs, even among investments critical to growth and innovation, such as infrastructure and workforce.

Take the city of Charlotte, for example. The city is currently looking to close a $21.7 million budget gap left by the state repeal of a business license tax and a surprise drop in property tax values. The city is reviewing its options, which include: pay freezes and eliminating positions; transferring some maintenance expenses from the general fund to a tourism fund (thereby decreasing funds for tourism activities); cutting funding to an arts and science program; and increasing development fees.

After all of this, the city will still be $10-15 million in the hole. Increasing property taxes may be politically infeasible, which likely means deeper and more widespread service cuts, higher fees, and less funding for programs and investments. No doubt, though, the city of Charlotte will find a way to close the gap, but at what cost to their future economic and fiscal health?

Even under these circumstances, our cities are leading change, progress and solutions to the most difficult issues of our time. Chattanooga is bridging the digital divide; Louisville and Buffalo are closing the skills gap; Seattle and San Francisco are raising the minimum wage. If we want grassroots innovations that are even more widespread and sustainable and that drive national economic growth, then cities need more than the fiscal cards they’ve been dealt. They need more than creative workarounds – but instead a consistent toolbox of resources to create the conditions that will accelerate their local and regional economies.

Their Hand: City-State Fiscal Structure

Cities, of course, are creatures of their states. The choices local governments can make are constrained by legal limits on their revenue raising authority.

In a new National League of Cities report, we examine the Cities and State Fiscal Structure across the 50 states and determine that a city’s “hand” is unique within each state and is a mix of:

  • Municipal fiscal authority: access to sales, income and property taxes. A mix of revenue sources is needed to provide cities with stability to buffer against economic downturns, and to allow them to capture revenue growth during periods of economic growth. No state uniformly authorizes its municipalities to utilize all three tax sources. Maps for export-03
  • Municipal revenue reliance and capacity: the amount of revenue (taxes and fees) a city generates that can be used to fund services and their share of resident needs. On average, U.S. municipalities derive approximately 71 percent of their general fund revenues from own-source revenues, including 24 percent from property taxes, 13 percent from sales taxes, 3 percent from income taxes and 32 percent from fees and charges.
  • State aid: the amount of state support for a municipality as a proportion of its total revenues. While it could be argued that too much state aid makes municipalities beholden to the state, in general, well-structured state aid can increase the capacity of all cities by equalizing the base support for cities that may lack sufficient resources. State aid has been decreasing despite increases in state mandates and cuts to state services that in turn force cities to pick up the slack (i.e., cuts to higher education or mental health services).
  • Tax and Expenditure Limits (TELs): constraints on local fiscal autonomy through voter imposed or state-imposed taxing or spending limitations, most frequently limits on property tax rates, growth in property value assessments, or caps on the total revenue allowed from these taxes. Forty-one states currently have some form of a TEL.

Incredibly, no state has afforded its cities an expansion of municipal fiscal authority since the start of the recession. Local fiscal health remains below pre-recession levels despite burgeoning broader economic recovery in part because authorization of more local revenue authority and other enhanced capacity measures are so rare.

States are balancing budgets too, and in some cases fulfilling tax reform promises on the backs of local governments.  Cities in Texas, for example, have traditionally traded lower levels of state aid for more local control but are seeing revenue threats as the state pursues caps on the local property tax. Last week, the state Senate Committee on Finance heard a bill, S.B. 182, which would lower the cap from 8 to 4 percent. This reduction would only provide a typical homeowner in McKinney, Texas a savings of $29.65 annually, but the city would have a revenue loss of $1.4 million. Similar threats are being considered in statehouses across the country.

Hold or Fold

Within these constraints, cities are using the tools available to them, and in some instances, implementing creative financing strategies. In the best case scenarios, strategies like social impact bonds, crowdsourcing, participatory budgeting and even ballot measures can help meet specific needs or increase engagement with the community. But they do not offer long-term, broad-based, reliable, general revenue streams.

Fees and charges have become an increasing proportion of local revenue due to a lack of access to other sources and the political difficulty of raising taxes. Fees and charges include development fees, waste disposal fees, court fees and service fees such as libraries and parks. They can be regressive, making it difficult for lower-income residents to access services, or impose charges on development that can negatively impact economic growth.

Beating the fiscal odds means cities are able to not only balance budgets, but continue to pioneer innovative solutions to the country’s most intractable challenges and lay the foundations for fiscal and economic growth. This requires more local tax authority, access to a mix of revenue sources, state aid that enhances the fiscal base of less-wealthy cities, and a revision of existing tax and expenditure limitations to make them less binding, or better yet, nonexistent.

We are gambling with the economic future of our country if we do not offer our cities more flexible fiscal structures that align with new economic realities and the responsibilities that we lay on their doorsteps.

Read the full 2015 Cities and State Fiscal Structure report here.

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

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.

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