For America’s New Mayors, a Chance to Lead with Data

Newly elected mayors across the country should leverage data to set their agendas.

Newly elected mayors across the country should leverage data to set their agendas. SHUTTERSTOCK/LESTER BALAJADIA


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The challenges facing local governments are bigger than ever and tackling them will require building cultures inside city halls committed to using data and making decisions based on evidence.

While the presidential race drew much of the nation’s attention this year, voters also chose leaders in 346 mayoral elections, as well as many more city and county commission and council races, reshaping the character of government leadership from coast to coast.

These newly elected and re-elected leaders will enter office facing an unprecedented set of challenges: a worsening pandemic, weakened local economies, budget shortfalls and a reckoning over how government policies have contributed to racial injustice. To help their communities “build back better”—in the words of the new President-elect—these leaders will need not just more federal support, but also a strategy that is data-driven in order to protect their residents and ensure that resources are invested where they are needed most.

For America’s new mayors, it’s a chance to show the public what effective leadership looks like after a chaotic federal response to Covid-19—and no response can be fully effective without putting data at the center of how leaders make decisions.

Throughout 2020, we’ve been documenting the key steps that local leaders can take to advance a culture of data-informed decision-making. Here are five lessons that can help guide these new leaders as they seek to meet this moment of national crisis:

1. Articulate a vision

The voice of the chief executive is galvanizing and unlike any other in city hall. That’s why the vision for data-driven government must be articulated from the top. From the moment they are sworn in, mayors have the opportunity to lean forward and use their authority to communicate to the whole administration, council members and city employees about the shift to using data to drive policymaking.

Consider Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who, upon coming into office, spearheaded an internal review process culminating in this memo to all general managers stressing the need for a culture of both continuous learning and performance. In this memo, he creates urgency, articulates precisely what will change and how it will affect the success of the organization as well as build a data-driven culture.

2. Creatively delegate

Any executive leader who wants data to inform decision-making needs to build a team. Mayors or city managers can start by looking to current staff across various departments to assemble cross-departmental data and analytic teams. These teams must buy into the mission of building a culture of “leading with data” and be empowered by leadership to help spread this culture across city government.

In Scottsdale, Arizona leadership has built a culture that believes that data-driven governance is “not 100%  of anyone’s job, but it’s part of everyone’s job.” This shift has been driven through the use of cross-functional teams that are explicitly tasked with changing Scottsdale’s city government into one driven by insights, rather than intuition. For example, Cindi Eberhardt, Scottsdale’s city volunteer program manager, is leading a group of staff integrating behavioral insights into decision-making across departments.

3. Model behavior

Mayors are busy, so they must use their time to model what’s important. For new mayors and department leaders, attending critical data or performance meetings will speak volumes to the priorities they’ve set.

For example, in 2013, then-Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James launched a program called KCStat, which is a regular performance management review meeting that convenes all city departments and the mayor’s leadership team to review progress toward the Citywide Business Plan and ensures they are maximizing efficiency and productivity in high-priority areas. While James was mayor, he chaired almost every meeting along with the city manager, sending a clear signal about the importance of data and performance management to achieving the city’s goals. He also spent his time working toward the sustainability of these meetings, building and passing an ordinance that mandates the “utilization of data and performance management” to achieve the city’s priorities.

4. Make smart investments

Nearly 90% of U.S. cities expect revenue shortfalls in the wake of Covid-19. Mayors will need to make smart investments to help accelerate financial recovery, while ensuring that their budget decisions don’t disproportionately harm low-income residents and communities of color. They will need to lean on data and evidence to determine how to invest to meet urgent needs, how to find efficiencies and how to responsibly raise new revenues.

In Paterson, New Jersey Mayor Andre Sayegh established a two-person “innovation team,” a chief innovation officer and a chief data officer who report directly to him and are charged with building an internal data culture and using data to make the city more cost-efficient to respond to fiscal challenges. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mayor Paul TenHaken ensured in his last budget that any and all new expenditures must be tied to the city’s strategic framework or a departmental “big hairy audacious goal,” focusing only on what matters most to move the city forward in times of fiscal constraint.

5. Build a sustainable organizational culture

It’s much easier to build a durable culture of data-driven decision-making if there are lots of people in city government using data as a part of their daily business. Developing evidence and data champions across agencies can help ensure a sustainable future for a city’s data practices.

Mayors can accelerate this culture shift by explaining why they are prioritizing the use of data in language that is understandable to city staff and residents. As Tulsa, Oklahoma Mayor G.T. Bynum says, “data is a tool that takes things out from philosophical debate and partisan infighting and comes down to practical decision-making to help all our residents.”

In our work with cities across the country, we've seen the power of what can happen when city leaders routinely take stock of progress being made and set clear priorities around ensuring specific data practices are embedded into the city's daily operations. Cities looking to do this kind of benchmarking and roadmap setting can get started by taking the What Works Cities Assessment.

Newly elected mayors can also lean on the experience of their data-driven counterparts across the country, who have been sharing ideas, testing bold solutions and relying on experts and trusted networks to gather the data they need to make critical decisions. As the disjointed national response to Covid-19 has demonstrated, there is a better way to govern. By following the data, mayors, commissioners and city council members across the country have the chance to restore the public’s faith in government’s ability to address our most urgent challenges.

Zachary Markovits is the Vice President of Local Government and Managing Director for Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative. Molly Daniell is the Director of City Progress for the What Works Cities initiative.

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