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Driving Results in Cities Could Influence Federal Performance Efforts

Using data to steer limited funds to programs that work.

Federal efforts to increase the use of data in performance management and evaluation may soon cross paths with a parallel effort at the city level. What Works Cities, a new $42 million, three-year initiative launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in April, will be helping 100 mid-sized cities build out their data capabilities, but its reach may extend to the federal level, too.

One of the principal barriers to better federal agency performance is the federal system itself. The work of the largest federal programs is often done by states and local governments. Cities in particular are responsible for a vast range of issues, including education, housing, transportation, law enforcement, and many others.

Unfortunately, many of those on the front lines need help to make the most of their data. The new Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative has placed a bull’s-eye on this problem.

James Anderson, head of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ government innovation program, said the idea for What Works Cities came from the organization’s previous work, which showed cities were "incredibly hungry to get better using data and evidence."

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The initiative will focus on cities with populations between 100,000 and 1 million—cities large enough to take advantage of the assistance, but not so large that they already have substantial capability.

The project is being overseen by Results for America, an organization that has also been actively supporting the use of evidence and data in federal programs. Last year it released a book, Moneyball for Government, which outlined several proposals to increase the use of evaluation, evidence and cost-benefit analysis by federal agencies.

"One of our roles will be connecting the cities to the national movement," says Michele Jolin, the organization's CEO. Results for America will also help the cities steer more of their limited dollars to programs that work.

The initiative also has four other major components, each of which aligns with one or more federal efforts.

Performance contracting. One central focus will be helping cities adopt more results-driven contracting for public services. This effort will be led by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab, headed by Jeff Liebman, a former Office of Management and Budget official who helped lead White House efforts on procurement reform. Since returning to the Kennedy School, Liebman has also led the Harvard SIB Lab, a national leader in helping state and local governments develop social impact bonds, which typically make payments to nonprofit service organizations based on their results.

Liebman says a culture change is needed in the relationship between federal agencies and cities. "It shouldn't be about compliance and filling out forms," he says. "We need a much greater focus by federal agencies on performance, with greater freedom and flexibility for cities in exchange."

Performance management. Paying for results is one thing. Managing for results is another. Beth Blauer at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Government Excellence will be leading the initiative's efforts to boost city performance management and open data systems. Blauer previously led Maryland's StateStat effort under then-governor Martin O'Malley, who brought his CitiStat initiative from Baltimore to the Statehouse. The work of the Johns Hopkins University team could eventually inform parallel federal agency efforts under the Government Performance and Results Act.

Evaluation. While performance management can track outcomes over time, real evidence of what works requires rigorous evaluation. This part of the initiative will be led by the Behavioral Insights Team, an evaluation firm that got its start at No. 10 Downing Street in Britain. The firm will help cities tap into deep reservoirs of administrative data and to conduct inexpensive, rapid-time evaluations. In this area, What Works Cities will be jumping ahead of the federal government, where Congress is only now considering legislation to create a commission to oversee such efforts.

Open data. While much of the rest of the What Works Cities initiative is driving performance from within government, this final part is driving it from the outside. For voters to demand performance, they need to know what is happening inside government. Voters, local advocates and the media need access to government data. That is the focus of the Sunlight Foundation, which will be helping the cities create open data portals, an effort that is parallel to, and may eventually connect to, federal efforts like Data.gov.

Overall, the various team leaders will be documenting their lessons learned along the way so they can be shared across all levels of government, including cities and federal agencies. The initiative also hopes to create a benchmark system, which will collect standardized data that cities can use to compare their performance to their peers.

"There's a lot of leadership out there in this area, and there's clearly a need for more resources," says Bloomberg's Anderson. "It made a lot of sense to us to focus on those cities and to give these leaders access to world class expertise."

If the Bloomberg Philanthropies effort works, the impact may be felt more broadly, not just by cities, but by federal agencies too.

Patrick Lester is director of the Social Innovation Research Center.