Data-Driven Governance Goes Mainstream

What began as a niche innovation is creating a wider transformation of government culture.

by / September 17, 2015

In the early days of online government, cities at the vanguard rightly bragged about taking on "e-gov" as a project. Within just a few years, though, e-gov had moved from a set of individual projects to an ingrained part of innovation and customer service. Now, cities around the country are working to make their immense quantities of data more public and actionable. As these initiatives take hold, the success stories of data analytics will, like e-gov, move from the anecdotal to the mainstream.

That process is well on its way in New York City, an early leader along with Chicago in using big (and little) data to drive innovation. New York is looking to leverage data science more broadly and deeply into existing institutions in an ambitious bid to remake governance.

In 2010, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed me as the city's deputy mayor of operations. Bloomberg, a leader in technological innovation in both business and government, knew the importance of automating procedures and harnessing data analytics. He gave me the task of advancing the city's innovation agenda in the Office of Operations, which coordinates the agencies that provide the services most visible to New Yorkers. Data was a crucial part of our strategy.

At the same time, other officials in the city's government were brewing their own data-powered solutions. Mike Flowers, New York's first chief analytics officer, gathered a team of young data scientists to produce insights from the city's largely untapped troves of data. His work ventured where there was little precedent, and so he worked quietly and fiercely on a few specific initiatives that he thought could benefit the most from data analytics. That project was a success, and in 2013 Flowers and the mayor formalized the team and created the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA) as the city's "civic intelligence center," where data from across agencies is aggregated, analyzed and turned into actionable solutions.

Headed by the current chief analytics and open-data officer, Amen Ra Mashariki, MODA is now situated inside the Office of Operations, where its functionality and responsibility has expanded. The officials in Operations have a deep, hands-on knowledge of the day-to-day processes that make the city work; add the team of data scientists and the result is a formidable pair. What began with Flowers as a niche innovation has now blossomed into a mainstream culture of data-driven governance.

MODA's tools have also allowed for more agile and sophisticated performance management. Headed by Mindy Tarlow, the Office of Operations is as interested in measuring outcomes as it is in monitoring activities. MODA leverages citywide data to better comprehend the metabolism of the city, searching for correlations and emerging trends. This produces high-level, predictive analytics that result in a more responsive and efficient allocation of city resources.

In addition to efficiency gains, MODA's placement in Operations has contributed to a wider shift in city government culture. Operations now also includes the Center for Economic Opportunity, which uses metrics to strengthen the city's antipoverty initiatives; NYC Open Data, which makes data from various city agencies available to the public; and several other data savvy project and performance management teams. Data is no longer just a part of the work that the Office of Operations does: it is becoming the very core of Operations.

MODA's team of internal consultants remains an internal data-resource center for other agencies. Some come to MODA needing help on one issue or requiring a single dataset; others need a whole suite of the office's services. The in-house expertise in MODA is intentionally flexible, adjusting to a wide variety of areas across the city that can benefit from data analytics. One of its standout projects is Databridge, a citywide data-sharing platform that integrates 311 and geographic data with more than 50 real-time data feeds from some 20 agencies and external organizations. MODA works on a case-by-case basis with agencies to take full advantage of the deep, cross-agency analyses that the platform facilitates.

There has been a widespread recognition that data doesn't only enhance what is done in government but that it has the capacity to transform what is done. New York City government has yet to perfect this model -- no city has it entirely figured out -- but the growth of its data intelligence from my time there to now may be a good indicator of what lies ahead for the burgeoning movement of data-driven governance.

This story was originally published on Governing.

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.