Connecting state and local government leaders
In a guest article, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown discusses how his city is harnessing data and empowering citizens to improve their community and government.
BUFFALO — While our city is globally-renowned for its architecture and Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park system, those who live here or visit here quickly learn our greatest asset is our people. We are “The City of Good Neighbors.” We are welcoming. We step up when family, friends and even strangers are in need. We stand together when times are tough. And our work ethic is second to none, whether it’s on the job or in the community.
That trait made membership in the Cities of Service coalition a natural fit. While we’ve never had a shortage of enthusiastic citizen volunteers, since signing the Cities of Service Declaration of Service in 2011, we’ve learned ways to more effectively leverage that enthusiasm to pitch in on a variety of initiatives to make Buffalo an even better place to live, work, and invest.
Cities of Service helps mayors and city leaders tap the knowledge, creativity, and service of citizens to solve public problems and create vibrant cities. During the Cities of Service 2016 Annual Convening in June, I had the opportunity to take part in the “Mayors Only” session. The 17 mayors in the room represented a diverse geographic swath, ranging from Anchorage, Alaska to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Madison, Wisconsin to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But despite our disparate hometowns, the commonality of the challenges we face governing our cities far outweighed our differences. We are all searching for ways to effectively stretch resources. We all want to harness data to make governmental operations more efficient. And every mayor in the room was eager to share best practices.
During the meeting, I was happy to share my decision to appoint our city’s first chief service officer, Oswaldo Mestre, in order to lead Buffalo’s Data to Decisions approach to neighborhood revitalization. This is a strategy which employs data insights to pinpoint greatest areas of need for service delivery, and engages the collaborative efforts of nonprofits, various levels of government, national service programs, and citizen volunteers to maximize impact and drive innovation.
Drawing on data from our 311 Call and Resolution Center, as well as location data of 911 calls, and our quality of life database, which tracks poverty and unemployment levels, we are able to target specific sites with specific services via our Operation Clean Sweep program.
Operation Clean Sweep brings together city, state and federal partners - in conjunction with local health and human services providers and community groups—to eliminate blight, reduce crime and provide social services. The three-pronged approach includes: Beautification and Restoration, Outreach and Education, and Code and Law Enforcement.
Clean Sweep is a strong example of effective private-public partnership. This year, the program is flexing the collective muscle of 17 government agencies and programs, 30 community organizations, four private sector partners, and thousands of volunteers.
From early spring through the fall, teams collaborate with citizens in targeted neighborhoods (approximately three blocks in size) on a weekly basis. Activities include: boarding up abandoned structures, removing graffiti and debris, trimming trees and grass, repairing signs, filling potholes, rodent control, tagging homes with exterior lead-based paint issues, and going door-to-door with governmental, employment and health care services.
Originally, Clean Sweep areas were simply targeted based on what local law enforcement flagged as a "hot street," a block or neighborhood where spikes in police activity were recorded. By extracting insights derived from our many data resources, the Clean Sweep task force can now quickly identify neighborhoods most at-risk, and determine precisely where to conduct operations.
It is a priority of my administration to fight the effects of blight by strategically targeting areas that demonstrate a need for a wide array of services. The active participation of our many community partners, efforts of our Division of Citizen Services and integration of data, brings us closer to our goal of making all Buffalo’s neighborhoods stronger and safer.
Operation Clean Sweep, which will conduct more than 30 sweeps in 2016, has had a significant positive impact on the city and its citizens by leveraging non-traditional, innovative approaches to improve the overall quality of life in neighborhoods experiencing various challenges, and promotes a stronger sense of community engagement and involvement.
The changes made to the Clean Sweep program were enhanced by Love Your Block, a Cities of Service strategy in which the city provides competitive mini-grants to community groups to help them revitalize their neighborhoods how they want, based on their input. The city then provides complimentary support to the community to help them achieve their goals. By adopting this strategy in Buffalo, we have brought more citizens into the process, working with neighborhood groups, businesses, faith-based entities, and other citizen-powered groups. The program empowers residents to understand that by working together with their local government, they are an important force in improving and maintaining the integrity of their community.
Use of an inter-department and inter-agency collaborative approach to pool resources creates an innovative model for cost-effective public sector service delivery. Buffalo’s commitment to providing its residents with a good quality of life through excellent service delivery has been recognized. Over the years, the City has been honored on several occasions for Operation Clean Sweep, most recently in 2016 with a Technology ROI Award (and read the related case study produced by Nucleus Research) and in 2015 with the Computerworld Data + Editors’ Choice Award.
In addition, Buffalo was named a Citizen-Engaged Community by the Public Technology Institute three separate times, the most recent of which was for the 2014-2016 round.
While we appreciate the recognition, our highest honor is the knowledge that we are touching the lives of hundreds of residents on every Clean Sweep. This is one way my administration works to help improve the City of Good Neighbors.
Byron W. Brown is the Mayor of Buffalo, New York.