How Jackson, Miss., Used Data to Build a Better City

Mississippi's capital is showing that you don't have to be a Chicago or a New York to make good things happen.

by / August 10, 2016
credit: shutterstock

It is easy to look at the data-driven management successes of place like Chicago or New York and conclude that the sophisticated application of data analytics requires the urban scale and resources of a big city. The story of Jackson, Miss., population 173,514, and its dramatic ramp-up of the use of data to tackle the city's problems in the past year belies this assumption.

When Mayor Tony Yarber took office in 2014, he was the Mississippi capital city's fourth mayor in two years. Jackson was confronted with a declining population, crumbling infrastructure and limited financial resources. But Yarber was determined to build a better city using data. He was one of the first mayors to apply and see his city selected for Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities initiative when it was launched in 2015, which giving the city access to expert technical assistance in the uses of open data and performance management.

Immediately after the What Works Cities announcement, Yarber called on his speechwriter, Justin Bruce, to be the director of the city's newly created Office of Innovation and Performance -- a department that still consists solely of Bruce himself. Bruce did not have a technical background, but, as the mayor describes him, "has a nose for organizing, for consensus building and for data." Within a month, Jackson became not only the first What Works City but also the first city in Mississippi with an executive order mandating open data. Within two months, the city launched a performance management program, known as JackStats, and Yarber and Bruce began biweekly performance meetings with all departments.

Engaging the community in the city's burgeoning data practice was a key priority. "My ultimate vision," the mayor says, "is for us to have a city that's engaged because they are informed." Bruce started planning for open data with a comprehensive community survey aimed at learning what information from what departments was of greatest interest. The top issues of dilapidated properties and potholes helped the city prioritize data releases and informed the metrics used for performance reporting. Outreach to other stakeholders interested in data -- including community organizations, universities, hospitals and the media -- identified other potential partnerships. Yarber formed a governance board consisting of representatives of these stakeholders, in addition to department heads, to guide the ongoing development of the city's open-data plan.

 
Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber
Earlier this year, the city launched its Open Jackson Data Portal, which includes both public datasets (49 to date) and a performance dashboard based on the community's priorities. The mayor has been taking the portal on a "listening tour," using it in forums across the city to engage the public in a data-driven assessment of how the city is doing and what it could do better. He views open data as a critical tool for residents to hold him accountable for achieving results on the issues that matter most to them.

The newfound emphasis on rigorous data-driven performance management has led to significant successes and savings. The discovery that enforcement was lagging far behind the clerical steps of property cleanup led to a departmental restructuring that moved code enforcement under the police department and generated $1.72 million in value from increased homeowner compliance. A change in policy to enforce the use of geocoding decreased duplicate 311 tickets by 60 percent, allowing the department to tackle the complaint backlog. And an effort initiated by the city's human-resources director, after a JackStats meeting, to analyze the city's hiring process cut down hiring time by 50 percent.

Through What Works Cities, the city was able to leverage outside expertise from the Sunlight Foundation and the Johns Hopkins' Center for Government Excellence. Because of the smart use of outside resources, Jackson achieved all of these wins, and more, for the cost of a single salary.

Less than a year after the creation of the Office of Innovation and Performance, the results speak for themselves. Regardless of a city's size or resources, a mayor with the vision to use data to govern more efficiently and effectively can make it happen.

This column was originally published by 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.