Bloomberg’s What Works Cities Program Hits a Big Milestone But Its Work Is Far From Done

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at last year's What Works Cities annual summit.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at last year's What Works Cities annual summit. What Works Cities / Bloomberg Philanthropies


Connecting state and local government leaders

Reaching its 100-city goal, the network focused on improving data-driven management practices in mid-size municipalities is continuing to foster “sustainability of practice” in city halls.

When it launched in April 2015, one of the goals of What Works Cities, the cross-sector partnership funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies that’s focused on assisting mid-sized U.S. cities with their data management and agency performance challenges, was to expand the initiative to eventually include 100 municipal governments.

After initially working with a group of cities considered early-adopters of local government management best practices—including Chattanooga, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; New Orleans; and Seattle—WWC gradually expanded its network of members. On Wednesday, the organization announced its final group of cities to be officially accepted into the program: Columbia, South Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Honolulu, Hawaii; Irving, Texas; and Long Beach, California.

As many of the WWC member cities can attest, the process to be considered and accepted into the program is rigorous and thorough. Being a What Works city also requires a high-level of commitment from mayors and their senior leadership to work with the team that supports the program, a group that includes the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Government Performance Lab at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Results for America, the Sunlight Foundation and the Behavioral Insights Team, a performance management consultancy originally launched by the government of the United Kingdom.

Member cities not only get access to the academic and non-profit expertise from WWC partners, they also get to tap the hivemind of local government professionals in the network’s other cities by comparing notes, adapting ideas and adopting best practices that have worked elsewhere.

In the case of Grand Rapids, a municipality with around 200,000 residents, the data-focused initiatives and projects going on elsewhere in the network will not only help shape the city’s own efforts on data governance and management, but also allow departments to accelerate that transformation. That’s because much of the work to identify best practices and strategies has already been done by peer cities in the WWC network.

“We’ve done a year’s worth of work in about a month,” Becky Jo Glover, the city’s director of customer service, told Route Fifty on Tuesday in advance of What Works Cities officially naming its last batch of new members. Grand Rapids is the only city in Michigan that was accepted to be a What Works Cities member and joins a list that includes places like Anchorage, Alaska; Durham, North Carolina; Mesa, Arizona; Providence, Rhode Island; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Glover, who worked for the Miami-Dade County government in South Florida before arriving in Grand Rapids five years ago, said that the city started its What Works Cities application in July. That was followed by experts from the program analyzing the city’s current data practices and assessing whether it’d be a good fit as a local partner and have the necessary level of commitment from municipal leadership.

In December, Grand Rapids started working with one of WWC’s partner organizations, the Behavioral Insights Team, on a series of small tests on the language the city uses to promote the use of its consolidated online payments platform, GRPayIt, which launched in August. Grand Rapids residents can use the platform to pay their bills for water and refuse services, plus property taxes and parking tickets.

BIT, a pioneer in “nudge” theory in the U.K., has worked with some WWC members on testing how small changes in how a local government communicates with its residents can change behaviors and outcomes. As Route Fifty reported in September 2016, BIT has worked with the city of San José, California to reduce illegal dumping by testing different ways the Environmental Services Department promotes its free, large-item pick-up service.

Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan (Shutterstock)

On Dec. 6, BIT started working with Glover and her colleagues in Grand Rapids to test how residents respond to different ways utility and property tax bills are worded and communicated. One goal—beyond broader adoption of the city’s online payments platform—is to increase the number of on-time payments.

“Language makes the difference,” Glover said. In the early tests in Grand Rapids, approximately 40,000 users were broken up into four groups of 10,000. Different word-choice options were given to three groups. The fourth was used as a control group for purposes of the study.

While the city will be able to track the behavioral impacts of the redesigned language through several billing cycles, there are already some overall big wins for GRPayIt, according to Glover.

Since the roll out of GRPayIt in late August, there’s been a 35-percent reduction in “walk-ins” at brick-and-mortar city offices to deal with payment-related inquiries, she told Route Fifty. To date, there have been 80,000 signups.

Now that Grand Rapids is an official WWC member, those types of targeted behavioral trials will continue.

The city, like many of its other peers in the network, will also work to improve its data governance practices by building a robust open data portal and implementing strategies that will encourage best practices across municipal departments when it comes to data. Through these efforts, the city hopes to boost engagement with the public through its datasets and other applications built upon the city’s data.

“At the end of is, this is really about involving our community,” Glover said.

She noted there was a Code for America brigade in Grand Rapids a few years ago working to make select city datasets available to the public. But the city, at that time, lacked formal data governance protocols and procedures to make sure those public-facing datasets were updated. That lack of data governance helped lead to the disbanding of the CfA brigade in Grand Rapids since those “those datasets weren’t maintained.”

This time around, Glover is far more hopeful that the best practices, insights and assistance from the What Works Cities network will lead to long-term improvements in how the city uses its data internally while boosting the level of engagement from residents and civic stakeholders.

It’s hoped that improving the way Grand Rapids uses its data will also help the city address issues of equity, especially when it comes to the delivery of public services, which has been a priority of Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

“We are proud to be a What Works city,” Mayor Bliss said in a statement. “Our partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies will strengthen our commitment to ensuring fair and equitable distribution of City services, resources and assets across the community. The goal of this work is to promote community engagement and increase quality of life through additional assessment and review with our external stakeholders.”

Building ‘Sustainability of Practice’ in City Halls

While Grand Rapids is looking at the What Works Cities program with fresh eyes as an official new member, people involved in the program since it launched three years ago have been looking back on the road to the 100-city milestone and what’s coming next.

What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody, a veteran of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in New York City, told Route Fifty in an interview that when the program launched in 2015, the organization anticipated there would be a lot of interest from city halls. In the world of municipal government, Bloomberg’s City Hall has been considered among the early pioneers in developing data-driven strategies to improve big-city services and agency performance. But there was more interest from city halls than was expected.

“We were overwhelmed in demand when we launched,” Brody said, describing what followed as a “chain reaction” in municipal governance. Many mid-size American cities don’t necessarily have their own local resources and assemblange of talent to undertake larger data-centric initiatives. The connections being built among city hall leaders across the nation have allowed municipal officials and personnel in different local governments to learn from the best practices identified and implemented through WWC’s collaborative efforts.

“Culture change” within city halls—a change that embraces data-driven strategies to improve municipal processes and public services—Brody said, is a big challenge but something that provides many opportunities.

While strong executive-level buy-in is a necessary ingredient—along with early adopters to identify and implement best practices—Brody said "the last piece of that culture change is the sustainability of practice” within a city government. That allows for these lessons and knowhow to transcend transitions in elected leadership, something that’s baked into the norms and standards of municipal governance.

“We work pretty hard now to get a broader base of buy-in,” she said.

One of the first What Works Cities was Seattle, where the efforts there were largely focused on improving the way the city manages and renews its contracts for homelessness services. Those efforts were something championed by then-Mayor Ed Murray, who resigned last year after child sexual abuse allegations from his past surfaced. But the results-based work to improve homelessness services contracting was something continued by interim Mayor Tim Burgess, who pushed legislation that, according to a city hall announcement in October, “codifies the [Human Services Department’s] existing performance-based, data-driven effort to invest in nonprofit organizations that demonstrate an ability to effectively serve those most in need.”

Burgess, in the announcement, said that Seattle’s municipal government “must work with service providers to ensure our safety net investments are evidence-based and meet agreed upon performance standards.”

That work is continuing under the new mayor, Jenny Durkan, who has “has taken this on in a meaningful way,” Brody said.

In many ways, Bloomberg’s various philanthropic investments in U.S. city halls, which beyond What Works Cities includes the Mayors Challenge, Innovation Teams and Cities of Service, are playing a big role in the professional development within local government leadership across the United States, including mayors like Bliss in Grand Rapids and customer service directors like Glover.

Next up for What Works Cities, now 100 member cities strong, includes pressing forward on its certification program, announced at last year’s annual summit in New York City.

“For a long time, many cities said they were good at data,” Brody said, noting that work on WWC’s certification program, still in progress, shows that “there’s a lot of room improvement” when it comes to data governance in city halls.

There’s certainly plenty of work ahead in city halls across the city, but What Works Cities—now complete with 100 member cities—has built an important foundation to build upon in the years to come.

Michael Grass, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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