Using Data to Dramatically Enhance County Services, Accountability

County leaders should seek to deploy data for preempting and solving problems, changing accountability and enforcement, and improving customer service.

by / July 15, 2016

This article originally appeared in NACo's Leadership Edge Newsletter.

Data and technology have nearly limitless potential to make local government more effective and responsive. The growing number of success stories across all levels of government means the value proposition for data has never been clearer.

Leading counties are already leveraging data for countless topics, ranging from public health to human services. County leaders should seek to deploy data for preempting and solving problems, changing accountability and enforcement, and improving customer service.

Preempting and Solving Problems

In order to provide top-tier service to communities, government needs to not only react to complaints and problems as they arise but also preempt them through the use of predictive analytics. Scientists in Harris County, TX carefully track the population and distribution of mosquitoes by trapping and collecting samples throughout the county’s 268 zones. The gathered data enables officials to specifically monitor the few species that serve as vectors for viruses such as West Nile and Zika, and ultimately adopt strategic pesticide utilization. Through monitoring and targeted spraying, Harris County prevents accelerated mosquito resistance, saves public dollars and forestalls unnecessary environmental damage.

Changing Accountability and Enforcement

Regulatory efforts no longer need to rely on randomized or static lists that do not take risk into account. New data-driven strategies allow regulators to be far more efficient by ordering inspections in a data-informed way.

Montgomery County, MD recently replicated Chicago’s successful algorithm to prioritize food inspections. The model analyzes open data on previous inspections, weather and characteristics of establishments to send inspectors to those establishments most likely to have violations first.

In the initial pilot, Montgomery County identified 27 percent more violations three days earlier, meaning fewer food-borne illnesses and a more effective inspections program.

Improving Customer Service

The cliché of government red tape exists for a reason — citizens attempting to receive services must sometimes endure cumbersome and repetitive processes. Allegheny County, PA’s Data Warehouse is a tool that allows the county to vastly improve service delivery to those with multiple needs. It integrates data from almost 30 sources, including school districts, mental health and child services.

This data-sharing and central repository of all data about each client translates to better case management and more effective service for clients. The extensive data also allows the county to analyze trends, measure the effectiveness of interventions and accurately track services.

Counties have finite resources to deliver a crucial set of services, a proposition that will become increasingly challenging should governments fail to adopt data-driven and technological advancements reflected in the private sector. County officials can be empowered by digital tools to exercise greater discretion in their jobs and abandon old and inefficient methods of operating. High-quality data is the linchpin to improved service delivery, and serves as local government’s catalyst to thoughtfully engaging and improving the lives of constituents.

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.