There’s a dream out there among those in the top levels of local government that one day they will be able to lead with clear, concise data from every department they oversee. For many, this dream will die a slow and agonizing death as efforts to break down, bureaucratic siloes fall short and daily operational demands outpace the potential for change.
It’s nothing against these dreamers, of course, it’s just that governments, like people, get comfortable and fear change — even if it’s for the better.
But even over a bad telephone connection, Harry Black’s tone and tenor are enough to convince you that he lacks the complacency so often found in others of his station. He comes across as a man with a crystal-clear vision for his city.
As a reporter, my first instinct is to question the whys and wherefores of policies and the people behind them, but Black’s idea makes sense: Lead with good data. It’s that simple.
Since taking on the role as Cincinnati’s city manager in September 2014, Black and his team have been laying the groundwork for the Ohio city to do just that. Though the initiatives sound more at home in a Silicon Valley startup, Black and his staff have been paving the way into fairly uncharted leadership territory.
The former finance director for the city of Baltimore is upfront about how his initiatives have worked in other places; pieces have panned out here and there. But in Cincinnati, the soil was fertile for change and ready for a new data-forward system of government.
“A lot of the things I’ve been able to pursue here in Cincinnati have been of interest to me for a long time, and I’ve tried some of these things in other places I’ve worked. The success was okay in some places, but you really couldn’t launch innovation and change,” he said. “The environment here is very conducive to innovation and change, and we’ve been able to launch quite a few things pretty quickly. Typically you would not experience success as quickly as we have in most other places.”
“What I saw was a city government that was functional, but not operating at an optimal level in terms of performance,” he said. “Things had been allowed to become excessively decentralized... Basically, it’s a local government that just needed a shot of energy in the arm, and that’s what we’re doing.”
He set to work establishing the Office of Performance and Data Analytics (OPDA) and a system of clear department metrics to better govern the city of nearly 300,000 people.
Under the new program, hard data helps to drive decision-making and budgeting, and ensures all department heads are managing their territories effectively. Black said the result has been a positive leadership “cascade” from the top levels of management to their staff.
The new custom-built communication hub also served as the launch pad for CincyStat, which mirrors similar programs in Baltimore and New York. CincyStat serves as the city’s analytic war room for eight critical departments within city government, including police, fire, water works and public services.
Analysts pore over critical data and present it in ways their peers and managers can use to move forward in daily operations.
The Innovation Lab is also centrally located within the OPDA, and offers staff a meeting place to tackle big issues with the necessary data in a collaborative environment.
The data headquarters sprung up in short order, only a month after Black got the keys to his new office, and the city manager was quick to bring on a familiar face from his time in Baltimore. Chad Kenney, formerly of Baltimore’s CitiStat program, was a clear choice for the new role as the city’s chief performance officer.
Kenney said there is a focus on data discovery and building easy-to-use, internal dashboards to clearly represent information. The city’s efforts to stream open data to the public portal has also been a cause for celebration in certain circles.
“On the open data side, I think the reaction has been a very positive one. Right now it’s geared toward the developer/coder community, and I think they’re pretty impressed and happy with the fact that we’ve launched a site and are committed to growing the amount of data available," Kenney said. "I think longer term there is a question of how do we make it accessible for the average consumer who is just interested in what’s going on in their neighborhood."
Kenney and Black said by concentrating on an “in-house” approach to designing programs and functions, staff is better able to address the requirements of internal systems.
In the same way, Rocky Merz, spokesperson for the city of Cincinnati, said there is an effort underway to rework the already easy-to-navigate website to better share the city’s tech-based tools and directly connect with the public.
“We’re kind of going from the back of the pack to the front of the pack,” Merz said about the transition.
For the city manager, treating technology-based resources like living entities is the only approach that makes sense. From the city’s mobile parking app and public services app, Fix It Cincy, Black said keeping current is a big priority.
“We’re approaching everything as though it’s dynamic," he said. "It’s constantly evolving, and we have to keep pace with that."
On the horizon, Black said the city is hoping to use predictive analytics to better manage its territory. Through a summer partnership with the University of Chicago, the city of Cincinnati worked on a pilot project to use predictive analytics to target urban blight from a risk management standpoint.
“Through their mathematical equations, we’ve developed a working model that allows us to play with this and explore the possibilities,” Black said. “That technology and that intellectual approach has relevance in many different areas. It’s clearly the next frontier, transitioning from a reactionary model to a proactive model.”
Kenney said the Data Science for Social Good prototype program will be the launch pad for future predictive analytics within Cincinnati’s footprint.
“The win was really the fact that we did a project like this and people inside the organization now see the value of doing this kind of work,” he said. “We’ve sort of got one under our belts, so we know where we need to go moving forward. Creating an internal market for this kind of work is one of the big first steps in being successful with predictive analytics.”