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Bloomberg's $42 Million Bet on Cities and the Power of Data

A new Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative aims to help 100 cities govern more effectively.

by / April 23, 2015

There is an emerging attention toward performance in city government. But that means we have to create the tools, culture and human infrastructure necessary to drive that performance. The movement to lay this groundwork got an important boost this week when Bloomberg Philanthropies announced its What Works Cities initiative, an integrated set of reforms that aims to transform the effectiveness of local government.

The central innovation of the foundation's $42 million program is to weave together individual components of high-performance governing into a unified picture of how cities can use data and evidence to govern effectively and responsively. The initiative draws attention to the pillars of what works in cities: a focus on public value, a focus on using data relentlessly, a focus on repurposing money from projects that don't work to those that do. In parallel, the program plans to recognize and quantify the success of those cities that are excelling and provide a roadmap for what other cities can do to succeed.

The initiative's goal is to work with 100 U.S. cities of between 100,000 and 1 million people. This is a smart focus. These cities have fewer resources than the largest cities, but they increasingly face similar challenges and also produce results of value to smaller cities. To be sure, some of the leaders in local-government innovation are mid-sized cities like Boston and Louisville, Ky. But to execute an agenda as bold as that of What Works, these cities will not only need leadership and technical advice but the support from an engaged citizenry that, through access to open data, can support local efforts to redirect resources to effective programs.

The program is drawing on the expertise of five external organizations to support each of the threads that, woven together, produce high-performance governance. These partners, who will work closely with cities on issues ranging from open data to "nudges" -- small actions that leverage large changes in behavior --- include nonprofits (Results for America and the Sunlight Foundation), academia (John Hopkins University's Center for Government Excellence and the Harvard Kennedy School's Government Performance Lab) and a London-based "social-purpose company" (the Behavioural Insights Team, known unofficially as the U.K's "nudge unit").

At a future date, the initiative will also launch a benchmarking system in an effort to gather standardized data so that cities can compare themselves to each other. This is a badly needed intervention. Right now, there are few coordinated benchmark reporting standards or inventories of some of the most valuable data on cities. Most hard-working public officials assume they are efficient, but they have little way to really know whether, based on what peers are doing, they could be better. Bloomberg Philanthropies' leadership in this area could have a great impact.

The new program is the product of insights gained from Bloomberg Philanthropies' numerous existing government-innovation efforts, including the Mayors Challenge, Innovation Teams and Cities of Service. As the foundation continues to build on its existing initiatives and launch new ones, it's getting better and better at identifying "what works" in supporting cities.

I've been working in the fields of government and government innovation for most of my career, over the course of which I've seen many important initiatives and innovations come and go in many of these areas. The comprehensive weaving of these components into a platform for city success through the What Works Cities initiative holds unparalleled promise to fundamentally change the way cities operate.

This blog 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.