This mayor is innovating on a universal city challenge May 28, 2024

This mayor is innovating on a universal city challenge

May 28, 2024

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Fire safety is one of the most enduring responsibilities facing any local government. For over a decade, Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Mass., has tackled this crucial issue. What is notable, however, is just how much Mitchell’s approach to this priority has evolved over the past year—in large part because of insights he gained through his participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the yearlong program of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. His city’s shift—toward a data-driven, proactive strategy focused on fire prevention—has come with promising results, including a 25 percent decline in structural fires. 

Of course, Mitchell isn’t the first mayor to embrace data-driven prevention in fire safety, which has been a focus in a growing number of municipalities for the better part of two decades. But his recent work on the issue serves as a powerful example of how city leaders can, with a fresh effort on data, achieve results in evolving an agency to better meet its mission. His approach, which is fueled by the Initiative’s data track and its emphasis on how leaders can create a sustainable habit of using data in decision making, is poised to pay dividends on a host of other priorities, too, from making more efficient use of police officers’ time to improving accountability on key school system metrics. 

“We were pretty insistent about doing the data track,” Mitchell says. “We've been fairly deliberate about adopting, as literally as possible, the recommendations, the lessons that we gleaned.” Specifically, he says, “We really have changed my routine. Now, we have monthly—in some cases bi-weekly—meetings with almost all the relevant departments. And we go through the numbers for every meeting, so it looks a lot more like real performance management, as opposed to just a series of updates.”

Bloomberg Cities spoke to Mayor Mitchell about how he’s building that culture of data use in a city hall that was initially hesitant to embrace that capacity—and how it’s now saving lives. His insights have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Recognizing that it’s never too late to develop new capacities. 

“When I started out in office [in 2012], the city was still doing its business in the same way it did back in the 1950s. All paper, people just sort of stuck in the same habits, still mired in routine. And it was obvious that we weren't focused on real clear objectives.

“We started to do some level of performance management back then. A lot of it, though, was general planning and goal setting based on those plans, and some level of data tracking. What we lacked were goals to which we'd hold people accountable. We didn't have enough capacity in our performance management. Our bandwidth for data collection and assimilation and auditing wasn't sufficient for a city of our size. 

“I started working with Bloomberg Harvard because I wanted to improve my leadership skills overall—and same thing with my senior staff. But we also made a conscious decision that this would be an occasion for us to really upgrade our performance management work.” 

Conducting a fresh, data-rich review of the risk environment.

“We had more fires than we should—the risk was fairly palpable. And while we’ve had a fire department that is very brave and skilled in fire suppression, we have not been very committed to prevention. So we basically just said: ‘Where's the highest risk? Let's triage, let's determine where the highest risk for property or personal damage may be. And let's put some resources into inspections and be very intentional about it.’

“So we defined the term ‘high-risk properties.’ They were residential. They were multifamily. They were not owner-occupied. And sometimes they had a history of fires. You’ve got to start somewhere, even if the data isn't great.”

Setting aggressive new benchmarks and adding key staff to reach them.

“What we said was, ‘We will do 200 more inspections this year of high-risk properties than last year.’ But we also committed more funds—and rearranged existing funds. [At the time], we had firefighters in our dispatch room, which was kind of a waste because so few actual fires happen compared to the call volume that comes into the emergency dispatch; most of the calls are medical calls or police calls. So we bargained [firefighters] out of the dispatch room in the last collective-bargaining agreement, and that freed up some bodies to put into fire prevention. 

“But fire prevention isn’t only about doing inspections—it's also educating the public about fire risks and about safe practices. That gets harder to do when folks don't speak the same language as the firefighters. We have a large Spanish-speaking population in the city, and reaching those folks has historically been a little bit of a challenge. So we've put firefighters to work who speak Spanish or at least have interpreters with them. And we've promoted our educational programming in languages other than English, primarily Spanish, but others as well. Spanish-speaking churches have been another area of focus.

“From the beginning of this fiscal year to date—a 9-month period, compared to the previous year’s first 9 months—we've seen a 25 percent drop in structure fires, from 161 to 121.”

Driving a larger shift from reactive to proactive service delivery.

“The key is focusing on the mission. What are you trying to do? So, in the case of a fire department, it's about risk management. And risk management is really an exercise in getting ahead of the risks—identifying and addressing them—before they materialize into an actual event.

“The follow up is really key. So we've got this more aggressive, more intentional inspection regime right now. But it isn't enough for firefighters to go out and check out a place and say, ‘You've got three deficiencies, I'll see you later.’ There has to be prompt follow-up to make sure that those deficiencies are addressed, and in a timely way.

“The [Bloomberg Harvard] classroom work gave us a better conceptual structure of how to go about this so that we felt a sense of comfort. We have a strong team here, and people ask critical questions all the time just by dint of their personality. But that's not enough. You actually have to have a system in place—a system that people buy into and feel comfortable with. 

“We also learned that it's OK to dive into performance management without everything being perfectly in place. Just getting going is really important. The work is never done. And it's never perfect. But if you stick with it, it's always going to get better. The data will get better, the work will become more routine, and it will get easier. And the results will be more tangible.”