Smaller Towns Get Smarter

Better technology for data analysis and visualization fuels Main Street's move to evidence-based decision-making.

by John Fry / June 22, 2015
Warwick, Pa., population 15,000, has collected sustainability indicators for two decades, and is now putting these indicators in one centralized system so leaders can easily see long-term trend visualizations for sustainability. Flickr/Katelyn Kenderdine
Big cities and counties have gotten most of the attention for using data and analytics to manage performance. But a combination of better technology, growing interest and strong local leadership is putting data-driven management within reach of smaller communities.
 
When some of the early work was being done in performance management, it was only feasible in very large jurisdictions. This seemed to be for a couple of reasons:
  • Since governments usually built computer programs to record and report the data from the ground up, it was an expensive proposition.
  • Smaller organizations typically did not have access to analytic resources to report and review the data.
To a large extent, technology has bridged both of these gaps. “Off the shelf” software programs are available, some as cloud-based SaaS (Software as a Service) products that require no IT involvement. Reporting visualizations are provided by the software that make sense and tell the story even to non-technical managers, putting information into the hands of those who understand the service area and can explain what they see in the visualizations in service terms. In addition, staff with analytic skills are becoming more common in local government because of the technology changes throughout society. Those staff often may be in a service area or central management position rather than squirreled away in the bowels of IT or a data analysis unit.
 
One gap still remains, but it was never a problem specific to small governments. Decision-makers may have very limited experience with evidenced-based decisions. This is particularly common in forms of government that elect the administrative officers rather than appointing professional managers to the post. Even when there is professional management, this can be a problem if the manager is unable or unwilling to get the decision-makers to look at relevant evidence, such as a performance management system provides.
 
This gap is disappearing, but very slowly, despite the successes in using performance data to make both operational and policy decisions. These are a few examples of small local governments that use data to look at what they do and what they produce:
  • The township of Warwick, with a population of about 15,000, located in Lancaster County, a developed agricultural area in Pennsylvania, has collected sustainability indicators for two decades. It is now putting these indicators, which summarize the outcomes of its efforts, in one centralized system so township leaders can easily see visualizations of the long-term trends that are so important in sustainability. One metric they  track is energy use in public buildings, which can be converted into CO2E (Carbon dioxide equivalents) and even compared to standards of CO2E per square foot. Further, as the system evolves, leaders will be able to tell a complete story of the impact the township is having on community-wide sustainability. Warwick’s Township Manager, Dan Zimmerman, explained their use of data this way: “How did we get away with creating a vision and pursuing it? We use data to support the community vision and, in return, create a support base to move toward that vision.”
  • Franklin Lakes, an affluent bedroom suburb of New York City with 11,000 residents has been expanding its performance management system to look at all services in the borough. Visual trends are used in meetings with the departments, their council liaisons, and the chief administrative officer to ask “why;” to investigate the cause of what they see; and to evaluate initiatives to correct a troubling situation or take advantage of successes. Examining workload trends, for example, led to the recognition that additional inspectors were needed but that additional staff could not justified in a different department.
  • Princeton, a town of 30,000 people that houses a prestigious university and a very inquisitive and engaged public, went through major changes when the former borough and township merged into one government about two years ago. While the staff worked tirelessly to address changes triggered by the consolidation, the administration focused some of its resources on measuring service levels in the new government. A Citizen Performance Dashboard provides a growing amount of performance data to the public in easy to understand visual trends accompanied with explanations of the background behind the data. One display provided to the public showed a dramatic increase in pool memberships after the pool was upgraded, following a controversial bond issuance that financed the renovations.
There has been more data available in local governments, even small local governments, than many realize, but in the past it was difficult to organize, display and analyze. Although this is now relatively easy to do, leadership is still needed to implement systems that utilize data to manage. In the towns mentioned above, each chief administrative officer had a vision of what they could accomplish by organizing their data and focusing it on service outputs and outcomes. The way they harnessed the resources for implementation and the goals and benefits they sought for the system varied in each town, but they all have made significant strides toward an evidence-based culture of decision-making.


John Fry is the program director for government solutions at Revelstone, a Web-based data analytics and reporting platform. John used his more than more than 25 years of experience with municipal governments to direct the development of Revelston’s content specifically to the municipal government marketplace.

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