Mike Bloomberg today announced an additional $42 million investment in the What Works Cities program to enhance cities’ use of data and evidence to improve resident outcomes and address the most pressing local issues. The investment, part of Bloomberg’s American Cities Initiative, is one response to what the former New York City mayor says is a mounting disdain for facts, which is making it difficult to tackle some of the country’s toughest challenges.
“Mayors and other local officials cannot get away with constructing realities or playing partisan games,” he wrote in a just-released letter on philanthropy. “They are the officials most directly responsible for the services people depend on.”
With news of this new investment, Bloomberg Cities spoke with Simone Brody, Executive Director of What Works Cities, about the successes of the initiative’s first three years and what’s in store for the years ahead.
Bloomberg Cities: When What Works Cities launched three years ago, the goal was to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhance their use of data and evidence. When we hear “data” and “cities” today, it’s almost a no-brainer. How new was that idea three years ago? And were there any hurdles to getting the initiative up and running?
Simone Brody: Almost any mayor we talked to immediately believed it was valuable to operate with the best information possible. The value was clear. The hurdle was helping cities prioritize this work against their other pressing challenges — making this urgent and showing the return on investment is worth it.
Over the past three years, cities across the country have continuously demonstrated that effectively using facts and information produces better outcomes on homelessness, on public safety, mobility, and other issues—and does so faster and with fewer resources. We now have hundreds of examples from cities of all types solving big problems and making their communities better by getting and reflecting on data and evidence. By not just telling people this is the right way to work — but showing them how it solves real problems in cities — we began to tip the balance from making data and evidence a theoretical best practice to making leaders demand that their city halls run in this way.
The second hurdle was helping city staff build their skills and capacity to effectively take on the work. Once city leaders wanted to operate this way, they needed to know how to. That’s exactly what What Works Cities was designed to do — provide guidance and coaching to talented city leaders ready to drive this work in their local government.
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How have you seen cities’ data-specific capacities evolve over the past three years?
The movement is clearly advancing. What was cutting edge a few years ago is now established practice. For example, managing and releasing data to the public is now expected of local governments. That means there is both more pressure on city governments to implement these data governance practices and a clear, codified method for doing so. There is a playbook that nearly any city can customize for their community. And, as the movement evolves, there are more advanced practices cities are taking on, too. The next frontier is for cities to more consistently and accurately use data to reflect what is and isn’t working and then, based on that information, change what they’re funding.
How has better use of data broadened cities’ and city leaders’ understanding of what’s possible?
City leaders now better understand what’s happening in their communities — the current state of their programs and their strategies for driving progress. Armed with this information, many local leaders are, for the first time, having honest, two-way conversations with their residents — sharing what they are doing and soliciting real feedback to inform their decisions. They’re less afraid of these conversations because they can speak with real insight and knowledge, and can talk about the trade-offs of one decision versus another.
We also have an incredible army of data-driven rock stars championing this work in cities around the country. They’re showing their colleagues what’s possible and looking pretty damn cool in the process. Civil servants might have more potential to impact people’s lives than any other profession, and our WWC community members are demonstrating that potential to make positive change to their colleagues, helping shift the culture in city hall. Every time a city leader has a data-driven success, it helps other cities and other mayors take on this work as well.
How has What Works Cities’ efforts in these 100 cities changed more universal approaches to data and evidence?
Although our cities weren’t the first movers in this work, they’re now the leaders. They’re showing other levels of government and other organizations how to do it. Cities are solving more problems and making more progress on intractable issues — and better information is the superpower helping them do it. They’re also taking this work out of their technology or data office and spreading it across city government. Mayors are demanding budget decisions be made with data, they’re evaluating new citywide programs to see if they work, and they’re having strategic conversations with service providers about the outcomes they hope to achieve. City leaders are becoming effective consumers of data. The culture of whole city governments is shifting — and the power of that is incredible.
What are some of your favorite city-specific success stories?
South Bend, Ind., just changed its process for distributing federal Community Development Block Grant funding. The city developed a scorecard to make the distribution process data driven — funding projects that best meet the city’s priorities for creating affordable housing for low-income residents. This transparent scorecard will attract more diverse and high-quality proposals. With more information, much better solutions can be developed.
New Orleans tested different language in text messages to get more low-income residents to take advantage of free health check-ups.
And Los Angeles has created the nation’s most comprehensive street-by-street cleanliness assessment system, CleanStat, that now provides quarterly, block-by-block assessments of the entire city. The program has reduced the number of unclean streets by 82 percent in its first year.
What’s most excited you over the past three years?
Just how incredible city leaders are. Each of our 100 cities has so many civil servants committed to excelling at their jobs, to improve the lives of residents. They have daily barriers, as we all do, but they are vigilant in working to remove them in their fight for a more vibrant, more equitable, more prosperous community. I love the people we get to work with and support every day.
What are you most looking forward to as you kick off this next phase of What Works Cities?
I’m really excited about WWC Certification, which is helping hundreds of cities around the country adopt these tools and better solve problems for their residents. We worked with 100 cities over the last three years — and that was huge. But there are many hundreds more that are hungry to improve how their governments are run — and any unmet needs means missed opportunities for governments and therefore residents around the country.
Certification gives all cities in the country a roadmap to becoming more effective, with our coaching and cheering from the sidelines. We’re already seeing cities make amazing strides, using certification as a guide and motivator for progress — adopting better city policies or changing the way their budget offices are making decisions.
I’m also thrilled about the growing network of cities and city leaders that are learning from and building off each other’s work — accelerating the pace of progress in cities around the U.S. Our network will expand in this next phase, and we aspire for every city to start off solving a challenge at the point where the leading city on that issue left off. The potential is amazing — join us!