Economy & Budget

Time to recognize innovation in city governance

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President Trump’s recently released budget, promising dramatic cuts to domestic spending across the federal government, also targets precious funding for cities across the United States.

While this is just the start of the budget process, city leaders around the country and across parties have reason to be concerned about reduced funding for important social service programs — from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to the Appalachian Regional Commission — which drive real results in their communities.

{mosads}With innovative programs to improve city governance emerging in cities nationwide and producing meaningful results, now is not the time to pull federal support of some of the most significant and positive interventions in urban life. It is time, in fact, to invest.


Almost two years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities (WWC), an initiative to help mid-sized cities with populations of 100,000 to 1 million use data and evidence to enhance decision-making and results.

At our annual What Works Cities Summit in New York City, we convened more than 350 city leaders from 75 U.S. cities and experts from across the U.S. who are using data and evidence daily to improve their cities and who have seen real transformation already.

With the looming potential of funding cuts, cities are again turning to data to measure the success and sustainability of their programs. Why use a cleaver to make a uniform 10 percent budget cut across the city, when you can use data to identify programs that aren’t producing results, and just shift funding from them? Or test an improvement to a program to see if it can produce greater returns, instead of eliminating it?

Cities are answering these questions in increasingly inventive and effective ways and, if we can draw attention to their innovations and experience, all levels of government stand to benefit. 

Intended to be the ENERGY STAR of 21st Century governance, WWC Certification provides national recognition and amplification for exemplary cities leading the way in effective governance. It also provides models of excellence and a clear roadmap for all cities to work towards, as they develop more effective data practices.

The WWC certification criteria enables cities to understand how their current practices stack up to others around the country and more importantly, provides them with a plan for how to improve the effectiveness of local government, step by step.  

Most cities are early in this work and the bar is deliberately high. The goal isn’t for many cities to get a platinum certification in 2017 or even 2018, it’s for cities to show they are committed to getting better results for the residents who live in their city and publicly declare their commitment to get there, one step at a time. We know what city leaders are capable of accomplishing with commitment and support.

Take Seattle’s urgent fight to reduce homelessness. After seeing dramatic increases in homelessness over a decade, while spending on homelessness doubled, the city in the past year has worked with the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WWC partner, to pilot new systems that are helping homeless providers collect and learn from data on what’s working to reduce homelessness and develop a partnership between providers and the city to produce better results.

The early results indicate that more homeless individuals were moved to permanent housing since the small pilot began and the providers and city alike believe this could drive systemic change in how the city addresses its most intractable problems.

In Jackson, Miss., the city needed to consider laying off staff in response to budget challenges. The Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, another WWC partner, helped Jackson create a system to analyze city spending and ways to save money, including by identifying under-enrolled programs, which led to the consolidation of schools and senior centers. In aggregate, the changes led to $4.5 million in savings and avoided 100 layoffs.

The Behavioral Insights Team is also working with cities to use low-cost A/B testing to determine the most effective methods of increasing the uptake of city services or saving public dollars. For example, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lexington, Ky., uncovered effective ways to tweak communications to residents that increased revenue from unpaid sewer bills.

Lexington recovered $139,000 in three months, and by scaling the methods used in Chattanooga, the city would bring in $121,865 of revenue in one month of billing. And in San Jose, Calif., an effectively worded postcard prompted residents to arrange nearly 146 percent more large-item pickups; if scaled, the postcards could lead to nearly 8,300 more household collections over three months, saving the city $4 million in higher costs of cleaning up items dumped illegally.

We have watched the governance capabilities of our partner cities improve greatly in just the last two years. With further encouragement and support, cities of all sizes can create models of success that we can spread across the country.

Now is not the time for the federal government to walk away from cities, especially if the goal is more efficient and effective local governance. Our cities are marching forward — working to meet the increasing demands of their residents everyday. The federal government and all of us need to move ahead with them. We certainly have a lot to learn.

Simone Brody is the executive director of What Works Cities, a national initiative to help cities enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making and engage residents. Find her on Twitter: @simone_brody.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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