3 Underlying Themes from the 2016 What Works Cities Summit

Cities are using the What Works data tools to address a wide range of priority issues, and summit participants had diverse job functions and experiences. But three unifying themes emerged during discussions.

by Katherine Hillenbrand, Data-Smart City Solutions / May 19, 2016

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the first What Works Cities Summit in New York City. The event convened over 200 leaders from cities and organizations across the country, united by a passion for the use of data and evidence to improve government.  Both the structured sessions and the conversations that took place among participants showcased the best of data-driven innovation in cities today.

The Summit celebrated the one year anniversary of the What Works Cities initiative, which was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in April 2015. What Works Cities, with expert partner organizations, is helping 100 midsized American cities better use data and evidence in four main areas: open data, performance management, low-cost evaluation, and results-driven contracting. Each participating city is receiving customized technical assistance to expand its capacity for data use to improve the lives of residents. The Summit was designed to highlight the progress of the 27 cities participating in the initiative’s first year, provide resources and training to attendees, and enable connections and sharing of lessons learned across the expanding network.  

The Summit opened with a keynote by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "Governing with Data and Evidence," which featured Mayor Bloomberg's data-driven leadership in New York City as well as his ongoing passion for government innovation with data. The breakout sessions that filled the rest of the day were categorized in the four main pillars of the What Works Cities Standard: Commit, Measure, Take Stock, and Act. These included discussions of storytelling with data, ensuring the sustainability of data work, negotiation, and other relevant topics. On the second day of the convening, participants attended in-depth technical assistance workshops by the partner organizations on low cost evaluation, results-driven contracting, open data, and analytics in practice. 

The cities are using the What Works data tools to address a wide range of priority issues, and the participants had diverse job functions and experiences. However, several unifying themes emerged from the Summit’s discussions.

The importance of people.  Data cannot achieve results in a vacuum; creating change with data always involves people. Speakers and participants repeatedly emphasized that both internal and external stakeholder engagement is critical to success. In the workshop on open data, Julie Steenson, deputy performance officer for Kansas City, Mo., said, “Stories without data don’t connect to facts, and data without stories doesn’t connect to people.”  

Systemic problems need systemic solutions. Major city challenges and priorities are rarely confined to a single department or agency. Special initiatives and empowered innovation and data teams can help overcome silos. In his case study session, Steve Goldsmith emphasized this point, noting that cross-agency performance measures need to be selected for such initiatives to ensure success.

The potential of cities. As Mayor Bloomberg noted in his opening keynote, the world’s population increasingly lives in cities, presenting an unparalleled opportunity to improve lives through work at the local level. Cities are delivering similar services and facing common challenges, meaning there is great potential to transfer solutions and insights across cities. The What Works Cities network is one important way that cross-city knowledge is already being shared. In-person events like the Summit remain a core way to facilitate knowledge transfer; the animated conversations taking place in the halls between sessions were proof of this.

The What Works Cities Summit was a reminder of the incredible energy around data and evidence in cities today. In an effort to help share lessons learned and document the results of What Works Cities, we are launching a What Works Cities page on Data-Smart City Solutions. This page will highlight ongoing stories about the use of data in the What Works Cities as well as cross-city observations and lessons learned.