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Bloomberg Philanthropies Names 13 More Jurisdictions in 'What Works Cities' Initiative

The organization is spending $42 million to help the selected cities improve their performance and services using data-driven decision-making.

Thirteen new cities will get coaching and technical assistance from national experts on public data and performance management, according to an announcement Thursday from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The initiative, “What Works Cities,” pairs mayors’ offices with nonprofits and university partners. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has set aside $42 million over the next two years to pay organizations for the help they will provide to cities. The 13 cities announced on Thursday are the second batch after an initial eight joined the consortium in August.

Four months ago, Jackson, Miss., became one of the initial cities, and it started with less of a foundation than some of the others in the first cohort. A growing number of cities have embraced "open data" policies that promote transparency by making government statistics and other public documents available online for free. At the same time, a number of cities have established "stat" offices dedicated to improving government performance through the regular tracking of agency statistics and the use of that information to prioritize areas in need of additional resources and policy change. Before joining What Works Cities, Jackson didn't have either. But last summer, Mayor Tony Yarber appointed one of his senior strategists to oversee a new Office of Innovation and Performance, which would work to establish an open-data portal and a stat program. Since August, "JackStat" has already held two meetings.

Justin Bruce, who directs the mayor's innovation and performance office , noted that at least in one area -- 311 calls -- citizens should already note a difference because of the Stat meetings. Through a city's non-emergency 311 number, citizens can call to request help with non-emergency services with issues such as graffiti and trash pickup. But in Jackson, citizens would call 311, make a request, and not hear a response. During Jackson's first Stat meeting, Bruce and a group of department heads looked at the number of 311 requests that had not been addressed yet and discussed why. 

Before that meeting, Jackson government workers from different departments filed information about 311 requests differently -- even when the same citizen called about the same problem more than once. When Yarber came into office in April of last year, the 311-call system had a backlog of more than 10,000 calls, of which about a third were estimated to be duplicates. During the first JackStat meeting, Bruce and the department heads decided to standardize 311-entry procedures. That cut down on duplicate requests and helped shrink the backlog by about 5 percent. Now, Bruce said, “citizens are going to see a faster turnaround on their 311 calls."

What Works Cities is part of a larger set of grant programs offered by Bloomberg Philanthropies that focuses on municipal innovation. As with the foundation’s prior work in cities, the initiative aims to spread data-driven decisionmaking in local government. What Works Cities is different in that the grants don't go to mayors or their employees. Instead, the money pays partner organizations that specialize in data collection, open data and performance management. Those outside groups then play a consulting role to mayors and their staff.

The data experts helping cities are Results for America (a nonprofit focused on evidence-based policy), the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Sunlight Foundation (a nonprofit focused on transparency and open data in government) and the Behavioral Insights Team (a company started in the United Kingdom that focuses on low-cost program evaluations to inform and improve government services).

Although the partners offer advice through short digital guidebooks, conference calls and site visits, city staff still have to implement and manage their own data projects.

“We didn't want to do the work for them and hand them a product,” said Beth Blauer, who directs the Hopkins center on government excellence.

For cities’ data projects to last beyond the Bloomberg initiative, government employees have to know how to do the work themselves. Though Blauer is playing the role of outsider for this project, she has years of experience running a government data office: She was the director of Maryland’s State Stat program under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The foundation’s goal is to help at least 100 U.S. cities use and manage data through the project. Any city with a population from 100,000 to 1 million can apply.

Here’s a full list of participants in the What Works Cities consortium so far, with the original eight in italics:

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Bellevue, Wash.
  • Cambridge, Mass.
  • Denton, Texas
  • Denver
  • Independence, Mo.
  • Las Vegas
  • Lexington, Ky.
  • Saint Paul, Minn.
  • San Jose, Calif.
  • San Francisco
  • Tacoma, Wash.
  • Waco, Texas
  • Chattanooga, Tenn.
  • Jackson, Miss.
  • Kansas City, Mo.
  • Louisville, Ky.
  • Mesa, Ariz.
  • New Orleans
  • Seattle
  • Tulsa, Okla.
This story was originally published by Governing.

J.B. covers a number of beats including immigration, gun control, politics and more for GOVERNING magazine.