Leading confidently with data: 3 steps for every city leader
City halls have come a long way over the past decade when it comes to using data to fight crime, protect public health, house the homeless, and so much more. As they get better at this work, one thing has become clear: The cities seeing the biggest gains are the ones where mayors are leading the charge.
There’s a good reason for that. Nobody else has the mayor’s bird’s eye view across city agencies and the ability as a leader to insist on cross-cutting collaboration. And mayors have a unique ability to set the tone. When the mayor regularly asks agency heads for data on how services are performing, for example, and digs for answers about why strategies are or aren’t working, it tends to infuse organizational culture pretty quickly.
That’s why we’re doubling down on our work with mayors in the new Bloomberg Philanthropies City Data Alliance. The program’s aim is to identify 100 cities across North, Central, and South America that are the most sophisticated, ambitious, and advanced at harnessing data, and enable their top leaders to chart the next frontier of public-sector data practice. As the first cohort of 22 mayors gets started, the first topic in our work together is exploring how they and their top officials can lead confidently with data.
That confidence part is critical. Even the most data-savvy city leaders hit roadblocks. Sometimes, the trouble is outdated software systems that thwart data sharing across the organization. Often, workers lack the skills to understand and analyze the data they have, or the bandwidth to fully integrate it into decision making. Or the data itself and the collection methods are biased in a way that doesn’t reflect what’s happening in disadvantaged communities. These are longstanding challenges in government at all levels, with no simple answers.
However, there are steps mayors can take to build their confidence, both within themselves and within the complex organizations they lead.
The first is embracing the idea that you don’t have to be a born technocrat to lead with data. You simply have to be yourself, and champion the values that drew you to public service in the first place. Every mayor has hopes and dreams for their cities, whether it’s to reduce violence, create jobs, address systemic racism, or other critical priorities. Leading with data is simply about making progress toward those goals, and doing it better, stronger, and faster. Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Tim Kelly put it nicely in a recent City Data Alliance learning session. “You don’t want to be a ‘data-driven’ organization,” Mayor Kelly said. “You want to be a ‘values-driven’ organization that’s informed by data.”
Second, leading confidently with data requires a citywide data strategy. San Francisco’s Data SF Strategic Plan is a good example. The plan lays out the city’s intentions around data to strengthen governance, improve quality, encourage use, invest in skills, and require transparency. Having a strategy like this in place gives mayors the confidence to know that all agencies, senior leaders, and staff at all levels are following the same roadmap and working to maximize data’s value for decision making. All cities participating in the City Data Alliance are working on creating or enhancing one.
Finally, leading confidently with data requires a laser focus on data quality. Bad data leads to bad decisions. It also can sow public distrust. Residents don’t believe you if they suspect your data are missing or hiding on-the-ground realities they can see for themselves.
A good place for mayors to start is in disaggregating city data by race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and other characteristics. It’s also critical to have a clear and transparent standard, as cities like Los Angeles and Toronto have done, while acknowledging the history of discrimination that makes disaggregation necessary. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, citywide data often masks disproportionate impacts felt within certain communities. Having granular data gives mayors the confidence to know they can target resources where they’re needed most. All cities in the City Data Alliance are creating or bolstering a standard for disaggregating data, as well.
As with any challenge in leadership or in life, the key to building confidence is to just get going. It starts by signaling to agency heads and others that data matters—and being consistent with that message. When senior leaders understand and expect that the mayor leads with data, they want to be part of that, too. For busy mayors, all this at first may feel like extra work to do. Over time, it becomes something different: The best way to accomplish what they were elected to do.
Beth Blauer is Associate Vice Provost for Public Sector Innovation at Johns Hopkins University and Amy Edwards Holmes is Executive Director of the Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University.