Data Is the Fuel That Turns the Gears of Government

Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati, Ohio /


Connecting state and local government leaders

It's also powering incremental change that's improving operations and public services. Just look at Cincinnati.


Harry Black has a big goal for Ohio’s third-largest city: “I want Cincinnati to be recognized as the best managed city in America,” the Queen of the West’s city manager told me in August when I paid a visit to the offices of CincyStat, the city’s performance management and data analytics program.

“Performance management is central to that,” he said.

If you were to ask any city manager around the country about their goals, they would naturally want their local government to be a leader in municipal management. But chatting with Black, it’s clear that he has a strategic plan to make Cincinnati stand out from the rest of the crowd.

And his office has been moving fast to implement it.

“We can’t afford to stand still,” Black, who became city manager in September 2014 after a stint as the city of Baltimore’s finance director, said before he allowed me to observe one of the weekly CincyStat analytics sessions. (Just before Thanksgiving, CincyStat tallied its 81st session.)

CincyStat sessions are held in this room. (Photo courtesy City of Cincinnati)

The CincyStat room, in a municipal office building across the street from Cincinnati’s late 19th century Gothic-style City Hall, officially opened for business in May. It’s where top agency managers and department heads face a panel of top city officials, including Black and Chief Performance Officer Chad Kenney, who leads the CincyStat team. The session I sat in on featured representatives from the fire department fielding questions about ambulance billing.

While Black and his panel certainly ask very specific questions that can at times put agency chiefs and managers on the spot, it’s meant to be a collaborative, proactive experience aimed at incremental improvement through regular stats sessions.

On the wall are four key tenets that guide the work of CincyStat:

  • Accurate and timely intelligence shared by all.
  • Effective tactics and strategies.
  • Rapid deployment of resources.
  • Relentless follow-up and assessment.

But there’s a critical element that provides a foundation for those driving principles and all of CincyStat’s work: Data.

Data is increasingly the fuel that that turns the gears of government, not only in Cincinnati, but across the nation.

Data collection has been used by generations of government managers at the state, county and municipal level. Governments across the nation used to have countless square footage devoted to document storage—and many still do.

But a lot has changed over time, and especially in the past few years. The ongoing digital transformation of government has put the role of data front and center. Technology has created new tools and techniques and enabled this rapid change while increasing the pace of resulting innovation.

Data analysis has become far more sophisticated. Unlocking public datasets for ordinary citizens, through portals like Open Data Cincinnati, has improved transparency and encouraged cross-sector collaboration.

In many ways, datasets are in the driver’s seat while government practitioners are along for the ride, analyzing the numbers and adjusting course along the way. And it’s been an exciting journey for those governments that have embraced the potential of a data-driven strategy and reaped its benefits.  

Data analysis has informed smart decision-making by city officials. It’s helped craft budgets. It’s allowed agencies adapt to changing conditions, improve performance, pave the way to efficiencies and create opportunities for continuous improvement.

It’s not always a comfortable process. Data analysis can shine the light on some less-than-pleasant realities hiding in the numbers.

The day of my visit to CincyStat, The Cincinnati Enquirer published a story about how the program found that the city government had racked up more than $130,000 in late fees for its electricity bills in 2014—and if you add in the first half of 2015, the number climbs to $175,000 in late fees.

CincyStat opened for business earlier this year, pictured, from left, City Manager Harry Black, Mayor John Cranley and Chief Performance Officer Chad Kenney. (Photo courtesy City of Cincinnati)

Eliminating that costly oversight was a big win for CincyStat but the fact that the city had been late paying its electric bill wasn’t necessarily something to celebrate.

“This is not something the innovation lab should have to address,” City Councilman Kevin Flynn said, according to the Enquirer. “This is basic bill paying.”

That’s certainly true. But Cincinnati is fortunate to have a data team that was able to spot those needless expenditures piling up. Not all cities are lucky enough to have additional sets of eyes on staff and a methodical, incremental and rigorous process designed to identify such things.

“We are using data and information to solve problems and make ourselves better,” Black told the Enquirer.

And that’s true of state, county and local governments across the nation—and especially in cities, where municipalities are on the front lines harnessing and analyzing the data that’s critical to the nuts and bolts of government operations that have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, businesses and civic stakeholders.

“The key right now for cities right is to perfect the fundamentals of government,” Black told me during my visit.

And plenty of cities are embracing the potential and promise of data, from SomerStat in Somerville, Massachusetts, to a new budget visualization tool in Sacramento, California, to a new advanced sensor network assessing travel patterns in Park City, Utah, to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center portal for the Pittsburgh area.

Those are all data-related stories recently featured on Route Fifty and there are so many more out there that we’ll continue to pursue. (And we’ll be discussing some of these examples on Tuesday during a livestreamed viewcast discussion on data-driven government at 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT.)

Back in Cincinnati, Black and his team are focused on accountability, collaboration and teamwork in the municipal government with the aim of “unleashing the power of our human capital in the pursuit of excellence,” as he told me in August.

But underlying all that is data. It’s fundamental to where government is now and where it’s going. And Cincinnati is looking forward.

“While I am pleased with what has been accomplished so far, I am truly excited for what lies ahead,” Black wrote in a November memo to the City Council. “The [Office of Performance and Data Analytics] program is only in its infancy. I am confident the successes will only continue in number and magnitude.”

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty.

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