City Performance: How to Get Your City Ready for Data Transformation

7 min read
Feb 21, 2020 9:18:14 AM

It’s no secret that just as advances in technology and data analytics have made the phones in our hands more powerful and useful, so too have these same advances powered “smart city” transformations in local government. Location-based data once limited to the military can now be found on Google Maps. Municipal vehicle logs updated manually (if at all) can be replaced by sensors. Residents can file and track a service request without ever setting foot in a clerk’s office.

All of that technology generates a lot of data about a city’s operations. But for a city manager or mayor looking to understand the state of your city and better serve its residents, is that data useful?

A mountain of data by itself lacks context; siloed facts and isolated snapshots won’t help you understand what’s happening behind the scenes. What city leaders are really looking for isn’t “data,” it’s intelligence – information that will help them illuminate a path to  success for their city. To do this, they look to technology, like business intelligence and performance management tools, to tell them what’s working. 

But here’s the secret: to become a “smart city” you need two things. The right technology, and people asking the right questions.

We all know that the right tools and technology are critical to building a data culture (don’t forget we’re a tech company!). And while much has been written about dashboards and data analytics being leveraged by forward-thinking leaders in cities like Boston and Syracuse, the reality is that these tools are powered first and foremost by people.

For example, every time we bring on a new City Performance customer, our first question is what are your goals? What does success mean to you? What is the value you want your data to communicate to your stakeholders? 

We ask because we know that a meaningful city performance report starts with people-based priorities. Before your city can launch a performance dashboard or reveal a data insight, city leaders and key staff from across the city organization must come together to define and align priorities.

Embracing technology can lead to real digital transformation, but technology alone can’t lead the conversation. The conversation must start with your goals. That’s why it’s critical to invest not only in the right tools but in the right partnerships, choosing people who will truly be committed to your success. 

So, if you know you need better city performance reporting, but you’re not sure what matters most, or what questions you should ask, this article is for you.

Based on mySidewalk’s experience working with hundreds of cities around the country, and drawing from the best practices defined by What Works Cities, we’ve laid out the first five people-focused steps you should take to get started on your path to becoming a truly “smart” and “data-informed” city.

1. Create data transparency 

As chief executives, city managers and mayors have a powerful voice in setting an overarching vision for a city’s future. More and more of them are speaking publicly about their commitment to using data and technology to achieve those goals, and that’s a good start. 

Just as important as these public statements is a commitment to actively grow that practice within the city organization. 

In other words, if your city’s senior leaders aren’t communicating with staff at all levels about how data informs your city’s day-to-day work, you have a problem. If they’re not reinforcing that message by calling on data to inform strategic discussions, your data isn’t working for you.

Because if we’re honest, sometimes as city leaders we don’t know how to fulfill our data promises. For example, here’s what we hear over and over:

  • We’re collecting a lot of data
  • We don’t know what to do with it
  • We want to be transparent & prove our value 

If that sounds familiar, you might have one of two problems, A. you need greater stakeholder clarity (more on that in step 4). Or B. You need help benchmarking – leveraging a performance report template, finding out how you compare to your city peers, visualizing project progress – these are practical things the right partner can help you achieve. 


2. Establish your purpose: articulate why and how you’re using data

To begin to operationalize your city’s vision for using data, identify one or more specific, key moments in your city’s existing work where that data will be used. These can be strategic discussions about your city’s priorities, such as Council presentations or a State of the City address; or key decision points about the city’s operations such as service delivery, staffing, or budget planning.

Focusing your efforts at this early stage is about giving your data efforts purpose, while also keeping them manageable; it will ensure that whatever data and technology you use, are readily useful to the work that’s already underway in your city. 


3: Assign and empower staff to lead your data transformation

It’s a reality in local government that staff are often juggling multiple roles and responsibilities at once. However, it’s also true that if you’re looking to kickstart a data transformation in your city, it will need to be someone’s job to lead the charge. Identify staff who are innovative and enthusiastic about your data vision, and give them an explicit mandate to direct the work. 

Crucially, they should be empowered to reach across functions and departments within your city, because this will be a team effort. 

Depending on the size of your city, this core team may range from two people to many more, and it may still only be one part of their job. They also don’t need to be data experts or IT people, although it helps to have at least one of those on board; it’s more important to identify staff who are willing to rally and empower their colleagues to make data a part of their day-to-day work. 

Here the What Works Cities team shares a few examples of how different cities have assembled their data teams.


4: Identify your city’s strategic priorities

We often hear concerns from staff that becoming “data-driven” or a “smart city” means putting data and technology first at the expense of their expertise, priorities, or autonomy. We believe that data without precisely that type of human context is just noise. 

Before your city can use data effectively, you need to specify your strategic priorities as an organization – i.e. what it is about your community that you’re trying to improve or what problems you’re tackling. By identifying these priorities and aligning staff around them upfront, you’ll lay the foundation for data to then inform, illuminate, and serve the work you set out to do.

Agreeing to a set of strategic priorities across your city isn’t easy, but you likely don’t need to start from scratch. Many cities have a comprehensive or strategic plan document, a strategic policy framework, and/or a set of priorities set by their council or commission; you can start there.

Consider also any priorities or goals that have been stated publicly by your leadership, such as in State of the City addresses, as well as issue-specific planning documents on topics like economic development or sustainability.

To help refine your list of strategic priorities, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

  • Focus on the community outcomes you want to see, rather than a department-by-department set of objectives. For example, “Efficient Governance,” “Safe and Healthy Communities” and “Economic Opportunity.” Not only are these the types of results your residents care about, it’s our experience that data can be a powerful tool in helping teams cut across departmental silos to achieve collective progress.

  • Focus on what matters most. Your list of strategic priorities won’t cover everything you do as a city organization, and that’s ok. This exercise is about focusing your city’s attention on a few key areas that are meaningful and manageable. And, as you delve deeper into your data transformation, it will be helpful and motivating for staff to understand how the more behind the scenes, technical work supports your community’s highest-priority issues. 

  • Know that these priorities will evolve over time. Your city’s data transformation is a journey, one you’ll learn from, build, and iterate on over time – and it won’t be perfect on the first try. While you shouldn’t expect to change your strategic priorities frequently, they can evolve over time as your community’s needs change and your understanding of the data that powers them deepens.

5: Begin recruiting allies and experts from across your city

Just as your city’s strategic priorities should cut across departments, so too will your core data team need allies from across divisions and functions to bring your data vision to fruition. After all, these are the staff who are responsible for executing the city’s mission every day – so their subject matter expertise and support is crucial to ensuring that data gets used, and is useful. 

As you go through the strategic priority process mentioned in step 4, you’ll naturally begin to identify which senior leaders and department heads are most open to incorporating data and other innovations into their teams’ work. 

Collaborate with them to identify staff who have the interest and ability to work with data, and opportunities to apply it to projects or initiatives that are relevant to your city’s strategic priorities. Working with these early adopters will help generate early wins from using data, and a model that you can test and improve before rolling it out across other, more challenging departments over time.

Starting with these five best practices will help your team define what you care about most and where your priorities lay so that when you find the right technology to help you execute, you'll be ready.

Are you, as a city leader, getting the insights you need? If not, we can help.

Learn more about how mySidewalk gives city management teams the data and intelligence they need to improve their communities.

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