Cities can lead the way during this post-truth era in national politics

By James Anderson

Thirty years ago, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The phrase became not only his dictum but, in many ways the North Star of good governance.

Until this year.

The 2016 presidential campaign wasn’t exactly poetic, but at the state and local level, public servants in America’s towns and cities are continuing to govern in prose despite the divisions in our nation.

Indeed, their work might be the antidote to the growing fear that we are entering an era of “post-truth” politics, where raw emotion doesn’t merely outdo fact; it overwhelms it, seemingly to irrelevance, and with little opposition. This only creates more cynicism and less confidence, more gridlock and less belief that government can and does work.

So what then is the cure? You won’t find it in Washington. The great untold story is how cities large and small are governing by the facts, using data and evidence not to cloud but to clarify what serves all Americans — and to engage their communities in efforts to move forward.

Look at Buffalo, New York.

On any given day, you will see city employees in the city’s poorest neighborhoods hard at work. Maybe they’re up on a ladder using a chain saw to trim dangling branches. Maybe they’re handing out smoke detectors to families who don’t have them. Maybe they’re filling, both literally and metaphorically, a pothole.

They are part of what Buffalo calls its Clean Sweep program — an initiative that is about using data to engage citizens and shape policy. Specifically, Clean Sweep crunches the data from citizen inquiries, emergency 911 calls and the census. Based on that information, the program targets the neighborhoods that need help most and better structures how that help is administered.

Buffalo is hardly alone. In Mesa, Arizona, officials recently created a “blight index” from data on crime and code violations; they’ve identified the neighborhoods with the most need and they use evidence-based decision making to redirect funding. In cities like New Orleans and Chattanooga, they are using behavioral science to sharpen outreach campaigns that aim to increase diversity in their police forces. Tulsa is one of a growing number of cities making data public and, in so doing, making government more transparent. In Providence, Rhode Island, the mayor takes city data out into the community, where he engages in robust conversations with residents about whether or not the official city stats reflect their actual experiences.

These innovative programs and others in cities around the country do two things, both critical for improving and healing an environment increasingly defined by a declining trust in public institutions.

First, these programs enable local leaders to use data and evidence to determine what’s working, what’s not and what we can do about it. Relying on hunches or making assumptions rarely leads to better understanding about the root cause of any problem. Data and evidence help create a shared understanding of the challenges we face and illuminate the path forward. They allow us to see whether our efforts are producing results and, ultimately, a return on public investment.

That, of course, leads to the second point — data creates a solid foundation on which everyday residents can participate in making their communities stronger. When government uses data to define problems and call out where help is needed, residents can step in and step up. Businesses, nonprofits and faith communities know where to focus their efforts. New relationships get forged and civic ties are strengthened. Because of that, door by door and block by block, programs like these can help us solve problems and also bolster our democracy. And today, that is as important as anything.

Elected officials of every stripe ultimately need to answer to the people. An emphasis on data and evidence, on the prose, is the surest and arguably the only way to get beyond rhetoric to real traction — whether you’re focused on creating jobs, improving public safety or any other critical issue.

Equally innovative Republican and Democratic mayors, in areas of the country both red and blue, govern by data and fact on a daily basis. Now is the time for national leaders to follow their lead.

James Anderson oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation programs, focused on building problem-solving capacity within local governments and spreading innovations that work. Before joining Bloomberg Philanthropies, he served as communications director to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Originally published at on January 19, 2017.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store