How some cities are using ARPA funds to build data muscles that last

June 1, 2022

Using data and innovation to solve problems is nothing new in Washington, D.C.’s local government. Mayor Muriel Bowser has long been focused on building the city’s capabilities in these areas—notably through The Lab @ DC, a team dedicated to designing programs around residents’ needs and rigorously evaluating what works.

But that steady growth has recently shifted into rapid expansion. With $4.5 million from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the city is hiring a total of nine performance and data analysts, social scientists, and civic designers. Seven of those positions are in The Lab, representing a 70-percent gain in the team’s headcount.

Sam Quinney, The Lab’s director, says the added capacity will enable the city to get the most out of the dozens of new pandemic recovery programs the city is launching with its share of ARPA funds—delivering better results for residents and keeping city leaders accountable for the outcomes. 

“We’ve targeted increases in people and other resources to help us launch our [pandemic recovery] programs as smoothly and successfully as possible—and with a resident-centered approach to them,” Quinney says. “And then, as these programs have time to mature, develop, and have an impact, we have the tools and access to the data in place to be able to measure what we’re getting out of it.”

Across the U.S., cities are leveraging $67 billion from ARPA to make historic investments in affordable housing, boosting small businesses, extending broadband access, and more. Washington is one of a growing number of those cities that are also investing this money in the capability of local governments to make sure the work is done as effectively and as equitably as possible.   

The feds are urging cities to do this. The U.S. Treasury Department’s guidance to local governments specifically encourages them to invest in evaluation capacity and data systems needed to measure the impact of ARPA-funded programs. Cities of 250,000 people and up are required to show whether they are spending the money on evidence-based interventions and report on the outcomes.

[Read our breakdown of Treasury's guidance here]

For local leaders who haven’t prioritized data and innovation in their spending plans, it’s not too late. Cities have only just begun receiving the second half of their federal funding allotments through ARPA. Dedicating even a sliver of these funds to hiring designers, data analysts, program evaluators and other similar roles can pay big dividends in better results for residents

"What's important about this opportunity is that the federal government is encouraging cities to use Rescue Plan dollars to bolster their data and evaluation capacities," says James Anderson, head of Government Innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. "These are sorely needed investments that will be critical to the work at hand and will pay huge dividends in the decades to come." 

Bloomberg Philanthropies has a number of resources to help local leaders navigate the rapidly shifting federal funding landscape. The Federal Assistance e311, a partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, offers city leaders answers to their most common questions, as well as access to leading experts in the field. City leaders can join an upcoming webinar on strategies for using ARPA funds to boost municipal capacity on Thursday, June 30 (Register here).

Meanwhile, the Local Infrastructure Hub, a partnership with the National League of Cities, Results for America, and U.S. Conference of Mayors, will offer city leaders knowledge and technical assistance about how to craft data-driven and innovative proposals for funding from the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure law. 

‘Surge capacity’

In D.C., The Lab’s newly expanded capacity is clustered in two areas. The first is focused on using human-centered design to set up new ARPA-funded programs for success by getting residents and other stakeholders deeply engaged in the initial design. This is something “that we’ve really learned the value of,” Quinney says, “to put the resident at the center of designing things as small as a form all the way up to a multi-million dollar program.”

For example, The Lab is partnering with the city’s Department of Human Services on a program meant to address a big problem in lifting residents out of poverty: As residents earn more money and qualify for less government aid, the high cost of housing chews up all their remaining income. The new Career Mobility Action Plan pilot program will pair intensive career support services for low-income residents with five years of rental assistance. The Lab’s civic designers are collaborating closely with residents who would be eligible for the support to make sure the program is designed around their actual needs and that the application and enrollment process is clear. 

[Read: How Washington, D.C., brings science into local government]

That civic design work is paired with the evaluation piece. The Lab’s social and data scientists are working with agency partners to define the outcomes they want to see from various ARPA-funded programs—and identifying the most rigorous feasible means of collecting data to evaluate the results. In addition to new staff, The Lab has new flexible funding to help pay for data collection where there are gaps.

Quinney likens the new resources to “surge capacity” meant to keep up with the massive number of projects and new programs D.C. has in the pipeline. While the infusion of funds will eventually run out, he hopes to eventually transition the new staff positions directly into agencies, spreading data and design capabilities across city government.

“Due to Mayor Bowser’s previous investments in this work, we were ahead of the game compared to a lot of our colleagues” in other cities, Quinney says. “I’d encourage any jurisdiction that didn’t have that capacity to take this opportunity to build it. Because it’ll be useful for the next thing that happens.”

‘This is a new thing for us’

That’s exactly what Syracuse, N.Y., is doing. For years, Mayor Ben Walsh has been pushing city leaders to be more data-driven in their work in order to improve services and track progress —an effort that was recognized last year when Syracuse earned What Works Cities Certification. Now, he and his team are using ARPA as a critical opportunity to accelerate and deepen those gains.

As Syracuse’s Nicolas Diaz explains, all city departments have a process they must go through for ARPA-funded projects. They need to define the project’s purpose and justification, identify milestones, lay out expected outputs and outcomes, identify opportunities to target underserved populations, and identify data sources that can be used to track progress. While different departments have always had their own approaches for tracking projects and using data, this is the first time it’s been done in a consistent way across City Hall.

[Read: Cities use innovation to get smarter about infrastructure]

“This is a new thing for us,” says Diaz, the city’s Chief Innovation & Data Officer. “For us, ARPA served as an opportunity to introduce better project management practices and better data practices into the role of the departments.” (Read more on the details of Syracuse’s approach here.)

Not only is Syracuse tracking performance more rigorously than ever internally, but Diaz and his team also built a dashboard to make public the data around the city’s ARPA efforts, including economic recovery, infrastructure, neighborhood improvement, and more. With so much taxpayer money at stake, he says, transparency is critical. “We’re not going to be able to meet 100 percent of our goals,” Diaz says, “but the fact that we have those goals, and that we hold ourselves accountable, is what’s important.”

‘A stepping stone’

In Seattle, city leaders have plans for a similar data dashboard to publicly track progress and impact of ARPA investments. In the meantime, they’re leveraging the expertise of two evaluation advisors the city’s been able to hire with federal funds.

The new staffers are working closely with departments to identify what success of new programs would look like and how to measure it. They’re doing this on the front end, before programs launch—to make sure that departments are clear from the start about what outcomes they’re trying to achieve. As these programs progress, the evaluation advisors will circle back to assess what works, giving city leaders in the future an evidence-based guide to which ones to consider continuing or expanding. 

This approach represents a big step forward for program evaluation in Seattle, says William Chen, the Seattle Rescue Plan Team Lead with the Budget Office’s Innovation and Performance team. “Some departments have pretty robust capabilities around specific programs they handle…and other departments have done very little,” Chen says. “We’re using this as a stepping stone to establish a more permanent capability for the city through a central office, but also seeding things in other departments.”

[Read: With data, cities max their ARPA spending plans]

Another way the new evaluation staff are making an impact with colleagues is by establishing a “community of practice” around evaluation. Now, people across City Hall whose jobs touch on evaluation either formally or informally have a regular forum to meet, share experiences, and trade ideas. “Our folks have deep expertise in doing this kind of work,” Chen says, “and they’re able to help improve the capabilities of folks who don’t.”

Leah Tivoli, Interim Director of the Innovation and Performance team, calls Seattle’s ARPA-fueled push around evaluation a blueprint for how city government could integrate performance measurement in a more systematic way. While these federal dollars will eventually run out, she’d like to see more opportunities in more funding streams to help local governments evaluate what they’re spending money on. As an inspiration, she cites a Seattle law requiring 1 percent of funds for capital improvement projects to be set aside for public art—a law that cities across the country have copied.

“We have ‘1 Percent for the Arts’—why not ‘1 Percent for Evaluation’?” Tivoli asks. This is about normalizing the way that evaluation can be integrated into city government. I’m hopeful that nationally we can learn from this.