Trying to recognize the most data-driven cities can be a difficult task, as several factors go into such a decision: the presence of a data portal, for instance, or how much usable information cities are able to extract from that data, or how much data impacts policy decisions. But now, cities have some guidance.
During the second annual What Works Cities Summit in New York City, the arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the launch a certification program that identifies and tracks progress of effectively governed cities that use data-driven decision-making. Similar to an Energy Star appliance or a Good Housekeeping seal, cities that apply will be eligible to rank as silver, gold or platinum, according to the What Works Cities Standard.
Executive director Simone Brody told Government Technology that the standard is broken down into four components that cities need to do in order to gain certification:
“We are certifying effective governance,” said Brody, adding that since What Works Cities launched in 2015, there has been “a lot of enthusiasm for creating a set of standards that show best practices.”
And standards can be transformative for local government, said Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka in a release — "especially when married with helpful guidance on how to meet those standards.”
When it launched, What Works Cities was envisioned as a provider of technical assistance to 100 cities. Four weeks into the program, they received 115 applications. The program simply didn’t have enough capacity to help every city that wanted assistance — and that's where the city certification process comes in.
Through communication about data-driven governance and open data advocacy with hundreds of cities in the U.S. and around the globe, Brody says the initiative has “developed a really good understanding of, not just in theory but in practice, of what this could look like in city government around creating effective practice and policies to drive better outcomes."
This program not only highlights the cities at the top, but also creates a roadmap for other cities working on their data-driven governance. “We have essentially created a method for celebration and collaboration.”
By going through the checklist, cities are able to recognize the areas in which they are excelling, and in which areas they need assistance. While it may seem like the list would be littered with such tech-savvy cities as Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, it also is for smaller cities.
What Works Cities can also act and an intermediary between cities and potential partners. Partnerships are crucial for the success, said Brody. One area that is of particular interest is in university/city agreements. By working with local colleges, cities are able to implement technology being developed in universities and provide a testing ground to better residents’ lives.
The panel that will help assign certification will be a coalition of a dozen organizations that support cities, including Code for America, the National League of Cities and the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Ash Center, gave seven examples of projects undertaken across the country that illustrate what the program is looking for.
A place to start, Brody said, is to figure out where to create capacity in city government.
“It is not just mayors making public speeches," he said, "but actually sitting down with the senior team and saying, ‘We need to start looking at data to make decisions. We need a group of folks who are focused on this work, and frankly we’re not going to make the next budget decision without data.”
There will always be reasons for not working toward something like this, Brody said. “But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Although it's only been around for two years, What Works Cities has already seen impressive results. “City leaders don't have enough opportunity to share what they are learning with each other,” Brody said, adding that the certification program is working to fill this gap.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.