What City Halls Across America Say About Using Data and Evidence

We launched What Works Cities to help 100 mid-size U.S. cities get better at using data and evidence to improve results for residents. Over three years, the effort will help mayors adopt best practices as they open up city data, use data to drive better performance, and rely on evidence to make better policy and funding choices. An impressive 112 cities from 40 states applied during the initial application period -- and tomorrow, we'll announce the first group of cities we're investing in. Our commitment through it all is to share what we're learning.

Here are a few insights we've picked up from these early weeks of work:

1. City Halls everywhere want to use data more often and more effectively. It's not a focus merely for the larger cities, the cities with robust tech sectors, or the handful of cities that are regularly featured on the urban innovation blogs. This is a real moment -- a data gold rush of sorts. And cities throughout the nation -- from Mississippi to Missouri to Massachusetts - see themselves in it.

2. Nearly 50 percent of cities that applied to this program say they are just getting started with using data and evidence to improve how they govern. There's significant opportunity to jump start their efforts by helping them build a strong foundation, accrue quick wins, and avoid common pitfalls.

3. More cities need clear goals and ways to accelerate and track progress "Where are we going?" is one of the most important questions an organization can ask. But city leaders, juggling so much and moving from one crisis to the next, aren't asking it often enough. Despite this, we're picking up genuine interest in City Halls to develop strategic goals and create the systems and routines that allow leaders to track progress, enable front line workers to see how their daily work contributes to the bigger mission, and engage residents.

4. We all know data can help ensure resources go further and create better results for residents. It is interesting how often we're also hearing mayors talk about data as a sort of confidence booster. Confidence when they are at a town hall meeting talking with the public. Confidence when standing before the City Council requesting money to expand a successful program. Confidence when they're answering a reporter's questions about what went right or wrong. One brand new mayor, whose City Hall has yet to start using data, told us he "feels naked" making decisions without it.

5. "We've come to see that it's all about the way we work." We're hearing that a lot from cities that have been at this for a while. The big truth is that using data and evidence in a powerful way has a lot more to do with culture and people than it does with technology and numbers. Cities will need help building skills and creating an environment that unites existing islands of excellence with the rest of city government.

We're excited to be responding to the demand of City Halls to improve how they govern, because we recognize that supporting better governing improves people's lives. That connection is something we already know works.