Optimizing Government Performance: Tips from the Trenches

Lessons learned on data-driven decision-making and creating a culture of innovation.

by , / May 25, 2017
From left to right: Hon. Kevin R. Kelly, municipal judge, St. Louis, Mo.; Laura Kinsell-Baer, co-founder of CivTech St. Louis; John Cruz, data management coordinator, RISE; Moderator Kathryn L.S. Pettit, senior research associate, director of Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, Urban Institute. Noelle Knell/Government Technology

PHOENIX — Process improvement was a key theme at the Summit on Government Performance and Innovation. The event, hosted by Governing* in collaboration with Living Cities May 24 and 25 in Phoenix, brought together state and local government leaders to hear from their peers and discuss ways to create meaningful change in communities across the U.S.

While not all the of the topics were tech-driven, the messages presented resonate across all areas of public-sector work.

UNIFYING PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESS — Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher opened day two of the summit with a brief overview of the city’s three principles for success and an example of each. First, work smart: A crew received a work order about a crumbling manhole; it was fixed and the job could have been complete. But Zuercher said one of the workers asked, “If this one is crumbling, what about the others?” In response, a series of failed manholes were found and fixed before it became a potentially catastrophic issue. Second, save money: Phoenix has put into practice $126 million of ideas that have created efficiency while cutting back costs. Zuercher’s example was the cost of painting garbage trucks, which added up to about $60,000 a year. Stopping that practice was one money-saving initiative that when combined with other efforts creates real change. And third, be kind to the customer: “We can have the best dashboards in the world and we need to have them, but if we treat people badly that’s what they’re going to remember,” he said. As part of this principle, every city employee will go through customer service training.

BECOME A PRACTICAL INNOVATOR — Kristen Cox has experience in making meaningful change. As executive director of Utah’s Office of Management and Budget, she has been recognized for her Success Framework for process improvement. “Innovation is possible, we just have to have a structured way to go about it,” Cox said. And during her keynote speech May 25, Cox discussed seven areas that help people and organizations to have breakthrough results:

  1. Think big. And this starts with getting comfortable with uncertainty. “We have to commit to doing something that we quite frankly don’t know if we can do,” Cox said. People will give numerous reasons for why something can’t be done, but she said to believe in the power of the goal and don’t give obstacles more power than your ability to overcome them.
  2. Embrace the constraint. Cox classifies government into eight categories like distribution and marketing, and said they all have the same type of problems, just different variations. So when she hears someone say, “I’m different,” it raises a red flag for her. Put constraints on your goal and use them as opportunities to innovate.
  3. Focus on the right problem to solve. Essentially, don’t treat the symptoms; find the root problem. “If we don’t know the problem, we can’t focus our time and energy on the right place,” she said.
  4. Don’t compromise.
  5. Make real change. When real change is made for the front-line workers, that’s when a problem is solved, said Cox.
  6. Stop doing what’s not working. She added that 20 to 30 percent of capacity is lost because we do things we shouldn’t.
  7. Be passionate and patient — sustainable change takes time.

“Every dollar we spend in government is a dollar not being spent somewhere else,” said Cox. “If I don’t change or get better, what is that costing the organization?”

TRACKING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT — An energy-efficient take on performance management was mentioned by Mahesh Ramanujam, president of the U.S. Green Building Council, which conducts LEED certification of resource-efficient buildings. Green Business Certification Inc., of which Ramanujam is also president, launched a digital platform last year that allows LEED projects to measure improvements and compare themselves to others. Ramanujam said that 2.2 million square feet is LEED certified every day, so it was important to have one place where all this data could be tracked and meaningfully reported. The platform, called Arc, can be a useful tool for the more than 800 state government and 2,700 local government projects that have been LEED certified.

DATA’S NEXT ACT — “Data is more than just a utility, it’s something that’s a part of our lifeblood,” said Daro Mott, chief of performance improvement in the Louisville, Ky., Mayor’s Office. Like-minded data practitioners gathered at a session titled “Planning Next Generation Cities” to talk about the next frontier in the government transparency journey. In Palo Alto, Calif., Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad touted the Silicon Valley city’s success with increased visibility into its data on permitting and licensing. Residents seeking a permit for rooftop solar panels used to be faced with a 120-day delay. Streamlined processes enabled by data dashboards trimmed that turnaround time to one day — even same day in some cases, Pirnejad said. Panelists agreed that every data effort needs an up-front focus on improving service or solving a problem for residents. “I don’t lead with data even though I have the most data,” said Mott. “I lead with the question I want to answer.”

HONORING TOP 25 AWARDEES — Two of Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2017 were honored at the event. Oswaldo Mestre Jr., director of citizen services and chief service officer for Buffalo, N.Y., and Leigh Tami, chief performance officer of Cincinnati, were named to the 2017 cohort for their work in creating responsive, customer-focused governments. Mestre helped stand up Buffalo’s 311 system, an effort that fostered a more responsive relationship between constituents and City Hall. And Tami spearheaded the December 2016 launch of CincyInsights, a new portal with 15 dashboards that allow residents to track everything from emergency medical responses to trash collection.

CIVIC TECH AND COURT DATA — St. Louis County, Mo., is made up of 69 cities that include more than 80 courts, so when a resident gets a traffic ticket, he or she may be unsure which police department issued it or which court system to follow up with. To simplify the process and provide the public with an easy way to get information about traffic tickets or warrants, civic tech nonprofit CivTech St. Louis launched YourSTLCourts.com, a mobile-friendly Web portal that connects data from the municipal court systems to provide users with information about a citation regardless of where it was issued in the county. In addition, a text message component provides the option of receiving information and reminders about upcoming court dates. Prototypes of both the website and text-based system were developed during a Global Hack competition, and it’s now run by Rise Community Development. The first rollout launched May 1 and includes data from only St. Louis County, but the hope is to compile information from all the municipal courts into the system. One issue is that the courts use different software vendors, so they are having to figure out ways to tie into each system, said John Cruz, Rise’s data management coordination. “We’ve had to be flexible, and we’ve also had to ask the vendors to be flexible,” he said. “This is a tool that allows everybody … to have one portal.” And it’s available to organizations as an open source tool, with the exception of nondisclosure agreements that have been signed with vendors.

*Governing is a publication of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.