Bloomberg Philanthropies certifies nine U.S. cities best at improving lives through data

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles February 11, 2018
Bloomberg Philanthropies has certified the first 9 cities in its pioneering What Works Cities standard-making effort to measure how well cities incorporate data and evidence into their decision-making processes. 

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It may lack the glamor of the Academy Awards but in the spirit of the awards season, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the philanthropic organization founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, has named the first nine cities to qualify for its What Works Cities data certification.

What Works Cities is a first-of-its-kind national standard of city governance that rates how well cities are managed by measuring the extent to which city leaders incorporate data and evidence in their decision-making.

The effort is part of a broader Bloomberg American Cities Initiative, a $200 million suite of investments that empower cities to generate innovation and advance policy that we wrote about in June.

The certification program uses a tiered system of platinum, gold or silver to indicate each city's adoption of data practices.  Los Angeles earned the highest classification of those in the group with a gold certification, while Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, New Orleans, Seattle, Louisville, KY and Kansas City, MO earned silver-level certification.

The cities were judged on 50 criteria in six categories: data governance, open data, performance analytics, results-driven contracting, low-cost evaluations, and repurpose for results

The certified cities, which will receive additional assistance from Bloomberg to accelerate their data programs, were recognized from an applicant pool of 117 cities with populations of 30,000 or more. James Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies' head of government innovation, told an audience at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' 86th Winter Meeting, that lots of cities use data but not many have strong governance around their programs:

Of the cities that we work with, 70 percent have developed portals or toolkits to share data with the public, but only one in five have developed systems to pull data routinely to populate those portals and those pools, so there's a little bit of a gap between the ambition to use data and where the practice is. What Works Cities was designed to close that gap.

In evaluating each application, the What Works Cities team reviewed whether the cities had hired the necessary staff to apply data, whether the right processes and policies were in place, and if the data had resulted in measurable results. Cities were required to show that their data is directing financial decisions, service contracts, policies, transparency, leadership meetings and city goals. A full breakdown of each city's data work can be found on the What Works Cities website.

Los Angeles became the first city to earn a gold-level certification due to what Anderson called its "impressive track record" with data-driven initiatives under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti who has embraced an aggressive approach to data and analysis to better understand and map the most pressing issues in Los Angeles.

Now in his second term, the Mayor is credited with using the foundation created by these efforts to develop a system-wide, evidenced-based approach to address the problems of affordable housing, crime, traffic, and pollution. Through its Data Science Federation, the City is also partnering with local universities to accelerate its use of data-driven tools at the same time that it is creating a pipeline to bring new talent into local government. Said Mayor Garcetti:

Numbers tell compelling stories, and they help us find answers that make a real difference in people’s lives.   It is an honor to receive this award for L.A.’s success in using data and evidence to improve how we target and deliver services--and we’re grateful to Bloomberg Philanthropies for recognizing what we’ve accomplished for communities across our city.

Data-Driven in LA

Among the major accomplishments cited by the What Works Cities:

Pledge to Patrol: In response to data analysis showing a need for greater diversity among recruits, Mayor Garcetti and the Los Angeles Police Department created the Associate Community Officer Program (A-COP) program in 2017--offering training and paid civilian employment to young people who have participated in LAPD youth programs and are interested in joining the force when they become eligible at age 21. The initial class is more than 50 percent female, representing 22 communities across L.A. County.

CleanStat: In 2016, the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation began regularly collecting data to measure street cleanliness levels, allowing the City to more proactively and equitably clean L.A.’s streets, and place thousands of new public trash bins in areas with the greatest need. In just one year, these efforts led to an 82 percent reduction in streets previously rated as “Not Clean."

Home for Renters Campaign: In 2016, the City of Los Angeles identified areas where housing displacement was likely to occur, and launched a multi-faceted campaign to raise awareness of tenants’ rights under the City’s rent stabilization ordinance, with a particular focus on assisting our most vulnerable residents.

Save the Drop: In 2015, the City of Los Angeles analyzed water consumption data by ZIP code to focus conservation campaigns on regions with excessive water usage, which has helped Los Angeles reach its 20 percent water conservation goal.

Girls Play L.A.: In response to historically low participation by girls in local sports and recreational programs, the City of Los Angeles analyzed youth participation rates and public health outcomes across L.A. to provide targeted subsidies, marketing, and expanded female mentorship, which increased female recreational participation rates from 26 percent to 45 percent.

Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities in April 2015 to drive the use of data in US municipal governance and to facilitate the exchange of best practices. It has reached its initial goal of bringing 100 mid-sized American city partners into the program. Last April, it launched the certification in close collaboration with a team of experts from the academic, nonprofit, and private sectors

My Take

In an age of hyper-partisanship when policy decisions rarely have much to do with what the data suggests is the best course of action, Bloomberg’s effort to lead city officials toward evidence-based decisions is a welcome finger in the dike of dissension and acrimony that passes for American politics these days.

What Works Cities is different from other programs 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.

A team of experts from Results for America and other What Works Cities partners conducts independent research and interviews. These experts, along with members of the What Works Cities Standard Committee, then join in-person site visits to the highest-performing cities to determine the city's Certification level.

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.  What Works Cities Certification has been endorsed by the National League of Cities as well as many of the country's leading urban thinkers and practitioners.