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Boise, Idaho, USA

Recycling Wastewater to Build a More Resilient Future

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Equity, Health and Wellbeing, Technology

At a Glance


$570 million: Bond amount voters approved with 81% support in November 2021, funding Department of Public Works Water Renewal Services projects slated through 2030. 


50+: Number of open house events held at the city’s water recycling pilot site


6 million gallons: Amount of additional water Boise will add to its renewal capacity each day when fully its Recycled Water Program is implemented, strengthening the city’s resilience against drought, population growth and climate change.


2029: Year the brand-new water recycling facility is slated to open.

In Boise, climate change and population growth all pose a long-term challenge to the most precious natural resource: water. The city of about 247,000 people draws 70% of its water from aquifers and 30% from the Boise River. Both water sources are under growing stress due to rising demand for irrigation, shrinking snowpack and increasing drought frequency.

To build resilience and support growth, the City of Boise has embraced water recycling. In 2020, the Department of Public Works’ Water Renewal Service utility issued a data-driven strategic plan to ramp up Boise’s water recycling capabilities over the next 10 years, with a new focus on aquifer recharging. A centerpiece of the plan is construction of the city’s first recycled water facility.  

City leaders have worked to rally Boise residents around their vision to ensure an adequate supply of water for both residential use and new businesses. They built buy-in various ways. The City held over 50 community meetings to show trade-offs of water treatment models to address limited water supply. The result was a $570 million bond measure that passed in 2021 with voters’ overwhelming support (81% voted in favor). This allowed the City to move on major water renewal capital projects, including a new $420 million water recycling facility, with minimal sewer user fee increases.

Leaders also leveraged the annual budgeting process to build stakeholder support. In recent years the City’s budget has included tens of millions of dollars in water renewal capital project investments, including for an advanced water treatment pilot to test new technologies. The pilot site, which opened in 2023, tests five different filtration technologies including reverse osmosis and ultraviolet advanced oxidation, to remove all chemicals and pollutants from industrial wastewater. Notably, one goal for data from the pilot is to build trust with residents.  The City aims to show that the recycling treatment will produce safe water for the community. 

As Boise city officials and residents deepen their knowledge of innovative filtration technologies, which aren’t common in Idaho, a more resilient future is coming into view. In February 2024, the City purchased a 76-acre plot of land where it will build the new state-of-the-art recycled water facility. Construction will start in 2025, a key step toward a more sustainable Boise.

The WWC team at the Boise water facility.

“The open houses we’ve done with community engagement of this pilot, the ability to show people the technology and talk about it, is really incredible.”

Haley Falconer, Environmental Division Senior Manager, Public Works Department
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San Pedro Garza García, Mexico

Data Makes A Resident Service Platform Go From Good to Great

Project Type:
Health and Wellbeing, High-Performing Government, Youth Development

At a Glance


Evaluated the City’s resident services chatbot, found room for improvement and made changes that reduced response times by 50% and saved $8.5 million


Visited 9,000 homes in 18 priority neighborhoods to interview caregivers about what services they needed. Services included transportation, grocery assistance and weekly breaks from caregiving. On average, caregivers in the resulting program reported a 30-point improvement in well-being after five weeks.


In response to feedback from caregivers, the City created—and then expanded—a mini public transportation route with 14 stops.


Reduced park maintenance costs by centralizing park management with a public-private partnership.

In February 2020, San Pedro Garza García launched a WhatsApp-based, resident service chatbot called Sam Petrino, or “Sam” for short. Previously the City received service requests – about potholes, broken street lights, overflowing garbage bins and more – by phone, through its website or in person at City Hall. But the Office of Innovation and Citizen Participation believed more residents would engage if they could use WhatsApp, the most common communication platform in Mexico.

They were right. Within two weeks of its launch, Sam was receiving more reports than any of the other reporting methods. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Sam’s purpose evolved. The City expanded Sam to include options for requesting food assistance or other support, reporting domestic violence, making donations or volunteering, and, eventually, registering for vaccines. By the end of 2020, Sam was averaging over 1,000 reports each month and gaining international acclaim, including receiving the National Institute of Transparency’s Innovation Award.

The City could have called Sam a success and shifted into autodrive. But, in 2021, data showed that Sam was not working as well as it could. The flood of new reports was creating internal problems, response times were slow, resident satisfaction was dropping, and the data being gathered through the chatbot was stuck in silos. The City interviewed staff, reviewed processes and made changes.

The entire government is, so to speak, connected to the bot.

Mayor Miguel Treviño de Hoyos

The City made 15 improvements to the Sam Petrino chatbot.

The City re-engineered Sam, making more than 15 improvements. Now, Sam is fully automated and digitized, internal reporting operations have been streamlined, and the public has clear accountability channels. Data from Sam is reliably gathered, shared across departments and publicly, and used in decision making.

The result: Despite 110% more citizen service reports submitted in 2023 than in 2019, the City responded 8.6 times faster – sometimes within hours – with the same amount of staff and the same amount of funding. Citizen satisfaction with Sam and the City’s response to service requests has increased from 67% before the changes to 84% after the changes were implemented. The majority of City staff also approve of the new internal processes behind Sam, which have helped foster accountability and recognition for those responding to the reports.

The City’s willingness to listen to the data, its residents and staff allowed it to see that even award-winning innovations can be improved. It’s a successful approach San Pedro Garza García is now broadly applying to better serve its residents.

What I would tell all other mayors is, ‘If your resources are scarce – which they are – you have to understand what you are achieving with these resources. And the only way to do that is to measure what you are doing.’

Mayor Miguel Treviño de Hoyos

Monterrey, Mexico

Improving Quality of Life Through a Data-Driven, Resident-Oriented Municipal Budget

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Equity, Health and Wellbeing, Technology

At a Glance


5% of the City’s annual real estate tax is allocated to projects proposed by residents through the Participatory Budget.


10,254 of votes cast by residents in 2023 for participatory budget proposals in 2023—five times higher than votes cast in 2022.


313 project proposals submitted by residents for the 2024 participatory budgeting round.


30 projects funded in 2023.

In late October 2023, Monterrey residents and city leaders gathered at the Rube Bridge in the Bella Vista neighborhood to celebrate a resident-led transformation. A once nondescript concrete underpass, which many neighbors avoided due to open-air drug use and loitering, was inaugurated as a recreational space featuring a soccer field, basketball and tennis courts, modern lighting and benches. Plans for security cameras, a playground and murals are in the works.

This revitalization is the result of the City of Monterrey’s participatory budgeting (PB) program, which allocates five percent of annual property tax receipts to fund resident proposals each year. Launched in 2022, the proposal is part of the city’s growing commitment to collaborative government and data-driven decision making.

Here’s how it worked:

  1. A resident of the Bella Vista neighborhood submitted a proposal to revitalize the bridge underpass.
  2. The City approved the proposal and included it on the ballot.
  3. Voters approved related proposals in 2022 and 2023.
  4. Bella Vista neighbors formed a committee to review construction project bids and monitor work site progress. (The commitment to this project from Bella Vista residents is remarkable—residents helped keep construction materials secure by sleeping at the construction site.)
Image Courtesy of the City of Monterrey.

Residents are clearly powering Monterrey’s participatory budgeting process—and behind the scenes, so is data. To ensure that wealthy enclaves don’t receive a disproportionate amount of funding, the City divided Monterrey into 30 sectors based on their respective socioeconomic conditions. It then prioritized funding projects in vulnerable areas. Additionally, the amount of funds made available to a particular proposal depends on four factors: the number of inhabitants of the area, the correct payment of property taxes, the level of segregation and the amount of active neighborhood councils in a sector. All proposals put up for vote must also meet technical and legal requirements, as well as being aligned to the City’s strategic goals.

One signal of the PB program’s success? Its growing popularity. In 2022, residents proposed 265 projects, of which 160 were accepted by the City; 2,452 residents ultimately approved 30 to receive funding. Last year, the City received 280 proposals, with 172 deemed feasible and 30 selected by voters. More than four times as many people (10,254) voted on those projects, thanks in part to a city communications campaign that drew on results from a performance analysis of the PB program’s first year.

Today, with civically active residents and an administration that routinely uses data to identify and prioritize local needs, progress is happening in Monterrey. Across the city—the first in Mexico to earn What Works Cities Certification—public spaces are being rehabilitated and reforested, and mobility infrastructure is being made safer. This is what smart, open government looks like in action.

“By having transparency mechanisms in place so citizens can understand how we use resources and make decisions with data, we’re promoting collaboration between society and government. It’s about being able to understand and recognize what can be improved. If we don’t listen to citizens, we lose a fundamental way to keep growing and improving.”

Monica Medellín Estrada, Director of Proactive Transparency, City of Monterrey
Monterrey city staff share more about the participatory budgeting process. Image Courtesy of the City of Monterrey.

“As leaders we have to make decisions every day, otherwise things can fall apart. Whatever our intentions, data helps us know what to do. When you have data, you know you are making a good decision.” 

Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas, Mayor

30 resident-proposed projects funded by participatory budgeting

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Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA

Tulsa Scales Up Data-First Innovation.

Project Type:
Communications, Cross-Sector, Economic Development, Education, Energy, Equity, Finance, Health & Wellness, High-Performing Government, Housing, Public Safety

At a Glance


Created a cross-departmental team that identifies the most effective methods for achieving the city’s top goals and leads the city’s data-driven transformation.


Found patterns in 911 repeat call data that signaled the need for a new referral program to deliver specialized healthcare and social services for residents. Within the first three months of launching the program, there was a 70% reduction in calls from its top 911 utilizers.


Partnered city agencies and civic tech nonprofits to develop a text reminder system that reduced missed fines and warrants that have helped the City’s Court see an annual 187,000 increase in revenue.

Using Data to Power Innovation

G.T. Bynum has leadership in his veins. One of the youngest people ever elected mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he’s the fourth person in his extended family to serve in the role since the turn of the last century. But he is the city’s first mayor to place data-driven decision making at the top of a change agenda. Since becoming mayor in December 2016, his administration has marked a turning point in how Tulsa uses data to power innovation and improve the quality of life in Tulsa.

Mayor Bynum didn’t waste any time after being elected. The idea of improving city services and using data to make key decisions was at the core of his mayoral campaign. One of his first moves as Mayor was the creation of the Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation (OPSI). The office works to align the city’s top goals with effective strategies. It quickly became key to the city’s data-driven transformation, says James Wagner, who led OPSI at its inception and is now the city’s director of finance and CFO.

Ben Harris, OPSI’s Data Analytics Manager, convened a team of employees from 16 departments to lead the city’s data governance and strategic planning efforts. The Data Governance Committee, which sets the standard and strategy for data quality, integrity, and use for the city government, has helped integrate the use of data citywide through the creation of a Central Data Repository where any employee or resident can request data.

“Through this cross-departmental team, we encourage transparency, access to data, and a feedback loop; ultimately it creates a trust relationship between departments,” Harris said.

“In addition to teamwork, technology played a huge role in orchestrating communication, automating data movement, securing data, and making it accessible.”

Data Analytics Manager Ben Harris

OPSI and the Committee also facilitate regular sessions with department leaders to focus on the value of performance metrics. These meetings aren’t just about tracking progress reviewing data — they’ve created a new space within the city to cultivate innovation.

“Mayor Bynum and other city leaders have consistently looked to OPSI to drive data-driven innovation work in Tulsa. This matters because we’re making real changes that improve city services and save taxpayers money.”

Chief Financial Officer James Wagner

A Caring Fire Department

For years, the number of calls to the Tulsa Fire Department was increasing, putting stress on their resources and capacity. By analyzing the data, the fire department discovered the source of the increased calls was not an increase in fires, but instead an increasing aging population who needed lift assists. Lift assists are calls to the 911 system for a non-emergency fall — the help the resident is requesting is to literally be picked up off of the ground. The city discovered a repeat lift assist pattern, with some residents requesting a lift assist as many as nine times a day.

Under the direction of Chief Michael Baker, the Fire Department developed and launched the Tulsa Community Assistance Referral and Educational Services (CARES) program, which was designed to connect high-utilizers of the emergency system to healthcare and social service providers. Visits to the highest utilizers became proactive, with the CARES team working on simple fixes such as installing low-cost solutions like handrails and opening up a dialogue with the resident’s primary care doctor. Within the first three months of the pilot, the fire department saw a 70 percent reduction in calls from its top 911 utilizers.

With preliminary results in hand, Baker presented his findings through the TulStat forum.

“TulStat,” based on the successful “LouieStat” program out of Louisville, Kentucky, has created a forum for change in Tulsa. City leaders gather to discuss priority problems, define success, innovate solutions, and develop methods for measuring progress. They identify specific, quantifiable goals, such as average time for reviewing building permit applications (previously 5 weeks, now 92 percent completed in 5 days) or responding to a 911 call, and troubleshoot obstacles to achieving them.

While CARES was developed before Bynum’s administration founded TulStat, having a space to build off of the pilot’s success was critical in connecting more residents to much-needed services. The program has served 204 clients; in 2020, four Tulsans have “graduated” the program and have the needed support services in place for them to live safely in their homes.

In the future, CARES hopes to work with OPSI to expand their data capacity to learn how to predict who is at risk for becoming a repeat caller to the 911 system and intervening early to distribute tools and services. Aligning community resources to provide innovative, proactive care will not only save the city’s Medicare and Medicaid partners money, it could save a resident’s life.

Breaking the Cycle

Working with What Works Cities and the Behavioural Insights Team, OPSI also helped the Tulsa Municipal Court solve a problem that had burdened the court and vulnerable residents for years.

Previously, when the court issued a resident a fine in a criminal case, but that resident wasn’t able to pay that fine on time, the court would offer an extension in the form of a “Time to Pay Order.” Some found themselves with a fine due more than 12 months in the future — enough time for them to save money for the payment, but also plenty of time to forget when it was due. As of early 2018, more than 70 percent of those orders resulted in a failure-to-pay warrant. For many, a warrant can exacerbate the cycle of poverty: a driver’s license might be suspended and additional fines can accrue, pulling someone further into the criminal justice system.

To combat the problem, OPSI partnered with the Court and Code for Tulsa to figure out how to reduce the number of warrants issued. Within a month, a text message pilot project was underway, designed around a simple hypothesis: Many people missed their Time to Pay Order deadline because they forgot the due date or lost paperwork. Together, OPSI, the Court, and Code for Tulsa developed a system to text simple, personalized reminders to a randomly selected pool of Time to Pay Order recipients. The test group received a text message reminder once a month leading up to their deadline.

Image Courtesy of the City of Tulsa.

The results were remarkable. During the six-month pilot, 63 percent of those who received a reminder paid all of their outstanding fees, compared to 48 percent of residents who did not receive reminders. Armed with data showing this 15 percent point increase, the Court system adopted the new reminder system. It now estimates an additional 320 people are paying their fees on time each year, avoiding warrants and additional problems because of the system. The Court benefited as well, seeing an annual $187,000 increase in revenue and a morale boost among employees who helped implement the solution.

“I’ve never been so excited about a job,” said Jamie King, a cost administrator at the court.

At the City’s Core

OPSI’s successful partnerships with city departments go beyond the fire department and courts. Three years in, OPSI has implemented practices and programs that have positioned Tulsa as a leader in data and innovation. In 2017, the office launched Urban Data Pioneers, an award-winning program consisting of teams of residents and city employees who analyze data to help the city solve key challenges and present policy recommendations.

With OPSI’s clear-cut ability to drive innovation, Mayor Bynum decided to integrate the office into the city’s key funding decisions. When Wagner became Director of Finance and CFO in early 2019, he brought OPSI with him to the Finance Department. This has changed the way Tulsa funds innovation. In essence, a data-driven approach has been institutionalized and scaled. Today, the city bases funding on data that proves programs work. OPSI vets data.

“We had the opportunity to take the approach and plug it into the finance department,” Mayor Bynum said. “It helps make it have much more of a citywide cultural impact.”

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Topeka, Kansas, USA

Transparency, Engagement, and Results in Topeka.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure, Transportation

At a Glance


Launched a series of interactive datasets and maps for residents to track the city’s budget and capital improvement projects, promoting accountability and transparency.


Produced video tutorials and how-to guides to help residents understand and use the city’s new open data portals, encouraging public engagement and input.


Created a scoring index to measure the quality of every paved street in Topeka in order to prioritize street improvement projects and develop a cost-effective infrastructure improvement plan.

Topeka’s Not Afraid to Connect

If you had walked through the doors of Topeka City Hall earlier this year, a bright green and yellow banner would have greeted you with an engaging question: “How would you spend $96.5 million of the City of Topeka’s money?” The banner, jointly created by the city’s Administrative & Financial Services Department and Department of Neighborhood Relations, was posted in city administrative buildings downtown and invites people to visit the city’s performance portal to “Hold us accountable!” and “Track how we are measuring up.”

Topeka’s budget banner in the Cyrus K. Holliday Building.

It’s a high-visibility tactic to pull residents into the 2021 budget engagement process in Topeka, which sits along the Kansas River in the state’s northeast corner. The banner also signifies the capital city’s commitment to performance, transparency, and community engagement — all of which city officials see as crucial for building trust, meeting the needs of about 125,000 residents, and spending tax dollars efficiently.

A User-Friendly Foundation

Just a few years ago, Topeka’s government wasn’t nearly as open to its residents. The data revolution that spread across the country during the 2010’s changed that: city leaders committed to increasing access to data inside and outside of City Hall. And they started engaging the community to solve problems.

“The goal was and is to provide the public with greater access to city data and opportunities to work collaboratively on complex challenges facing our community. By increasing the city’s accountability, we were building trust with residents and changing the way the city operates.”

Deputy Director of Information Technology & Chief Software Officer Sherry Schoonover

The launch of Topeka’s open budget portal in 2015 marked a turning point. For the first time, residents could access datasets that showed, down to the line item, how the City aimed to spend their tax dollars. The City released its 2016 budget on the same portal, making the proposed budget accessible to residents for review and feedback. But the commitment to transparency didn’t stop there. In 2016, under the direction of Schoonover, the City launched the Topeka Capital Projects Dashboard. Its interactive map helps residents visualize the City’s capital improvement plan and get current information on capital projects across the city, including whether they’re on schedule and on budget.

Image of Topeka’s Capital Projects Dashboard and interactive map.

The same year, the City also set a strategic goal to increase data-driven decision making. Staff wanted to go way beyond offering snapshots of information through dashboards — so with the assistance of What Works Cities partners the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University (GovEx), the City launched a formal open data program, passed an open data policy and assembled a data governance team.

Proactive public engagement efforts also ramped up: the city manager launched a weekly report powered by the open data portal that offers updates from departments and divisions, and links to performance dashboards. To help residents navigate various portals, the City created video tutorials and how-to guides.

And for the first time in a decade, the City in 2018 conducted a Citizen Satisfaction Survey to align goals, policies, and spending with the priorities of Topeka residents. They voiced three top priorities: maintenance of city streets (the top concern), managing traffic congestion, and enforcing city codes and ordinances.

Data-Driven Streets

Well before survey results were in, City Hall staff knew that road conditions across Topeka were a weighty issue. A few years earlier, the city adopted a data-driven approach known as the Pavement Management Program (PMP) to prioritize improvements to this key infrastructure. The initiative would turn out to be crucial for winning public support for continued investments.

“The City of Topeka has been using data-driven decisions for years when developing our city’s goals and priorities. By using the Pavement Management Program, the City of Topeka has been able to build trust within our community in improving quality of life through infrastructure and transparency.”

Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla

PMP has three core components: the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), improvement strategies, and funding. The index scores the quality of every paved street in Topeka on a 0–100 range. A Fall 2016 assessment of all streets within the city’s jurisdiction showed:

  • 57 percent in poor condition
  • 18 percent in fair condition
  • 25 percent in good condition
  • An average system-wide PCI score of 55 (between fair and poor)

With this baseline data in hand, the City created a strategic plan for cost-effective street improvements built around measurable performance goals. In 2017, the Topeka Governing Body set a goal of pushing the average system-wide PCI score to at least 60 by 2029, and to be on course to reach an eventual PCI score of 70.

Image of Topeka’s Pavement Condition Index map.

Pushing the average score higher would cost millions in additional annual funding — a reality the public works team illustrated with detailed forecasts it presented to the City Council.

Table presented by the Public Works Department to the Topeka Governing Body during on Feb. 7, 2017, detailing the different funding levels, and corresponding backlogs, to achieve different PCI goals for street conditions.

If Topekans wanted streets to improve, they’d have to pay for it. In November 2018, they elected to do just that. Sixty-one percent of voters in the city approved a ballot measure that extended a half-cent sales tax for 10 years to fund street maintenance projects. If it had failed, the PMP would have lost more than half its budget — and the City wouldn’t have been able to maintain the 55 PCI score, let alone make progress on its goals.

The stakes were clear, so the City launched an interactive website informing residents how the money from the current half-cent sales tax was used for road repairs and what could be done if voters approved a 10-year extension. Videos showed road improvement strategies and before-and-after photos of repaired roads. Using predictive modeling, residents could peruse the data to see the impact of not renewing the sales tax.

All the upfront data-building work paid off — and the City Council brought into the PMP as well. To accelerate progress on street improvements, it allocated an additional $6 million over three years to ensure the city stays on track to achieve its PCI goal of 60.

Image of Mill and overlay work being completed at SW 17th Street and SW Fairlawn Road in Topeka. Courtesy of the City of Topeka.

Many Topeka residents likely haven’t heard of the Pavement Condition Index. But behind the scenes, it’s powering progress. If residents call the public works department asking why their neighbors’ street was repaved but theirs wasn’t, staff can now explain the decision, backed up by data.

Holistic Neighborhood Improvements

Streets are just one aspect of a neighborhood’s quality of life. Topeka has also taken a data-driven approach to understand the overall health of neighborhoods, and then outline a plan for strategic reinvestment. The City’s Team Up to Clean Up initiative, run by the Division of Community Engagement, provides hands-on help. Through this program, residents, city staff, local businesses, and community partners volunteer their time and services to breathe new life into areas in need.

It all starts with the data underpinning the City’s Neighborhood Health Map. Here’s how it works: every three years, the planning department updates the map to give each neighborhood an overall health rating based on poverty level, public safety, average residential property values, homeowner tenure, and the presence of boarded houses. Neighborhoods receive one of four overall ratings, akin to triage at a hospital. A “Healthy” rating is optimal; “outpatient,” is favorable; “at risk,” means negative conditions are emerging; and “intensive care,” means conditions are seriously distressed.

Image of Topeka’s 2017 Neighborhood Health Map. Courtesy of the City of Topeka.

The City prioritizes disadvantaged and socio-economically challenged neighborhoods rated as intensive care for Team Up to Clean Up, but selection also depends on the willingness of the Neighborhood Improvement Association (NIA) to work with the city. Once neighborhoods are selected, the Division of Community Engagement leads walk-and-talk sessions with community members to listen to their concerns, learn what supports are needed beyond home and street repairs, and link residents with social service organizations via a neighborhood resource fair.

In 2019, Topekans teamed up to clean up two neighborhoods, East End and Ward Meade. Volunteers painted home exteriors, trimmed trees, and replaced porches, and city staff repaired streets and sidewalks, among other activities. In the East End, Habitat for Humanity held workshops on home maintenance topics like siding repair and gutter care. The fire department, one of six city departments helping to improve the neighborhood, installed fire detectors and house numbers. By providing the NIA with tools and resources needed to sustain many of these efforts, the city aims to improve neighborhoods’ overall health ratings.

City of Topeka Utilities Department employees working in the Ward Meade neighborhood during the fall of 2019 as part of the Team Up to Clean Up initiative. Image courtesy of the City of Topeka.

“This program illustrates that despite economic conditions, with community-wide support networks it is possible for disadvantaged neighborhoods to thrive and promote resources to improve the overall quality of life for their neighbors,” says Monique Glaudé, the city’s Director of Community Engagement.

A New Era Emerges

Years ago, city leaders heard criticism from stakeholders that the government was not transparent, that officials had something to hide. The City of Topeka still has its share of internal and external challenges — no city is perfect — but a lack of transparency is no longer one of them.

City leaders are committed to providing the public with timely and reliable information on decisions and performance, via City Manager Brent Trout’s weekly reports and other resources. Under Trout’s leadership, a Rapid Process Improvement initiative has streamlined city processes to eliminate redundancies and waste. That’s led to cost-savings for taxpayers and time-savings for city staff.

2019 summary of results achieved by Topeka’s Rapid Process Improvement. Image courtesy of the City of Topeka.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed by Topekans, says Mayor De La Isla.

“There’s an overall feeling that we are more approachable and responsive, and people have an understanding of what we are trying to accomplish for our community. We can go to sleep every night knowing what we are doing for our community and that we can show results.”

Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla

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Seattle, Washington, USA

Seattle: Transforming a City in Fast-Moving Transition.

Project Type:
Communications, Equity, Finance, Health & Wellness, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure

At a Glance


Initiated a data-driven approach to homelessness intervention that reoriented providers’ thinking — and their service delivery models — around the goal of ensuring any experience of homelessness in Seattle is rare, brief, and one-time.


Used a results-based contracting approach to monitor contract progress and encouraged contract managers and providers to meet regularly to review performance data.


Developed a dashboard focused on homelessness-related data from twelve departments to have better situational awareness of the homelessness crisis, in addition to how human services programs are performing.

Seattle is More than a Cup of Coffee

Fast-paced economic development is bringing plenty of high-tech jobs to Seattle and leading to spikes in household incomes, but progress isn’t being felt by everyone. It’s also contributing to a severe shortage of affordable housing and a homelessness crisis that led the City to declare a state of emergency in November 2015. This wasn’t for a lack of funding directed toward the city’s most vulnerable residents; Seattle’s budget for homeless services grew from $29 million in 2005 to $50 million in 2016 while homelessness continued to rise. Struggling to keep up, the City had to take a hard look at how it was tackling the crisis.

In response, the City launched its Pathways Home plan to shift its focus away from emergency, short-term interventions toward longer-term solutions, using data-driven decision-making to guide the way. As the City says, “Every dollar spent on emergency beds is a dollar not spent on strategies that allow people to exit homelessness.” A critical aspect of the plan was to rethink relationships with outside providers that contract with the City’s Human Services Department (HSD) to provide homelessness services, beginning with a pilot of $8.5 million worth of contracts. The pilot was carried out as part of Seattle’s engagement with What Works Cities partner the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School.

George, Maria, and their young son are among families that nonprofits contracted with the City have helped to move into permanent housing.

Through the pilot, providers were no longer tracking indicators like how many beds were filled or meals were distributed, but rather metrics such as how many people moved into permanent housing or became homeless again after being served, and how long they experienced homelessness. The approach reoriented providers’ thinking — and their service delivery models — around the goal of ensuring any experience of homelessness in Seattle is rare, brief, and one time. By using a results-based contracting approach, that’s what the City began holding providers accountable for too; contract managers and providers began meeting regularly to review performance data, enabling the City to troubleshoot problems in real time and spread the most effective practices.

“It’s not just about more money, although more resources is important. It’s also about thinking and how we do our work differently. How do we use data in a way that is not just compliance-driven, but helps us figure out what is working for people we’re trying to support out of crisis?”

Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester

Seattle has just expanded the pilot to $34 million in contracts awarded to bidders following the issuance of the City’s first competitive RFP for homelessness services in ten years. By keeping providers on target with performance benchmarks, the City aimed to double the number of people being moved into permanent housing by the end of 2018. Seattle is also expanding the performance-based model even further — across the entirety of HSD, which invests $105 million in contracts annually. Simultaneously, the City is developing a dashboard that will bring together homelessness-related data from twelve departments to have better situational awareness of the homelessness crisis, in addition to how human services programs are performing. Soon, real-time data will be available to staff, enabling a more coordinated, citywide approach to tackling the problem, tracking vendor performance, and more.

These efforts are part of a larger culture of data use throughout City Hall. Seattle was one of the first cities in the country to pursue open data and has a robust approach to engaging residents that goes beyond simply publishing data sets on its open data portal. The City is also advancing skills it developed with What Works Cities partner the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University by rolling out performance management citywide. To help facilitate that process, the City’s Office of Performance is conducting twelve-week engagements with departments on a rolling basis to train staff. “Getting people the right resources — that’s what’s critical to getting the job done,” says former Organizational Performance Director Tyler Running Deer, who also worked extensively to help departments link their performance and budgeting goals. Seattle is also sharing progress toward citywide goals via its performance portal, one of several public-facing ways residents are kept informed.

After data showed that use of a former bikeshare program wasn’t offsetting its cost or meeting users’ needs, the City piloted a dockless model.

By tracking data and seeing what works, Seattle is learning important lessons about when and how to allocate funding, manage programs, or sometimes, when to shut them down. In one recent example, the City rolled out a bike share program, but data showed use wasn’t offsetting the cost and the service wasn’t meeting users’ needs. Bike docks were taking up valuable parking space, much to the dismay of local business owners. A highly-used station was located on a hilltop, so users weren’t returning the bikes, leaving the task to a truck that drove large numbers of bikes back to the dock at the end of each day. Now the City is piloting a dockless model with three different companies that are funding the program through their own revenue, and had to provide a data-collection plan before receiving permitting. Users can take the new bikes on the routes they truly travel and park them in more convenient locations. Without the temptation to concentrate docks in the highest-income areas, the hope is that bike access will also become more equitable. So far, the results seem promising, but for this city, there’s more than time that will tell — there’s also data.

Read more about Seattle’s data journey here.

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Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

From the Pony Express to AI Traffic Control: Scottsdale Drives toward the Future with Data.

Project Type:
Communications, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure, Parks & Recreation, Technology, Transportation

2023 Gold Certification Highlight:


For several years the City of Scottsdale has been tracking and monitoring short-term rental properties and complaints about them. In 2022, the Arizona Legislature passed a law allowing cities to license short-term rentals and regulate nuisance properties. The City quickly sprang into action, adopting rules requiring short-term rentals to be licensed and creating Good Neighbor Guides to educate short-term rental property owners and their neighbors about the requirements. The CIty also created a Short-Term Rental Map Tool that allows residents to view the license status and understand the impact of short-term rentals in their neighborhoods. The Map Tool draws on the City’s Data Service Standard – one of the first cities in the United States to publish one – that guides the City in developing reliable and informative data services and products for its residents and businesses.

2019 Silver Certification


Launched an open data portal that provides performance data to collective benchmarking databases, which allows cities to help each other set more informed targets and put their own progress into perspective.


Used predictive analysis to calculate yearly projected water needs, which has allowed the City to continue a 20-plus-year streak of pumping less groundwater out of its aquifers than it puts back in.


Teamed up with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to identify the effectiveness of messages on utility bills through randomized control trials that led to more customers choosing eco-friendly, cost-effective options such as signing up for paperless billing.


Analyzed the effects of altering traffic signals after prior accidents to develop data-based, location-specific plans for minimizing traffic jams after future accidents.

Honoring Scottsdale’s Memory

The skies were clear blue at noon as a crowd cheered the world’s oldest official Pony Express to the end of its 200-mile journey, outside the Museum of the West, in Old Town Scottsdale. This annual delivery of 20,000 pieces of first-class mail is among the special events and other attractions that bring about 9 million visitors and around $41 million in tax revenue to this Southwestern city each year. Old Town, the City’s downtown, still grows olive trees from its first days of settlement in the late 1800s, at the same time that it has become the spring home of the San Francisco Giants and begun to emerge as a center for high-tech businesses. It’s just one manifestation of how Scottsdale, the “West’s Most Western Town,” is a city that remembers its past while steadfastly preparing for the future.

The Hashknife Pony Express comes to the end of its 200-mile journey in Old Town Scottsdale.

Adopting a Business Mindset in City Hall

Scottsdale stands out for adopting a business mindset to run a well-managed government, embracing transparency so that residents receive the information they deserve, and embedding data in decision-making to ensure the best outcomes. And the efforts are paying off — in conserving water, serving vulnerable residents, minimizing traffic jams, and beyond.

Scottsdale joined What Works Cities in June 2016 and, soon after, codified an open data policy and launched an open data portal. Scottsdale has also deepened its citywide performance management. City Manager Jim Thompson says, “When we look at data and analytics, even though we assumed something was best, when we overlay old data with new or more specific data, we may find a new way to do things.” To continuously evaluate progress is to continuously improve.

The City is publicly reporting on that progress through a public-facing performance management portal, and provides performance data to collective benchmarking databases, an effort that allows cities to help each other set more informed targets and put their own progress into perspective by comparing themselves to other similar municipalities regionally and nationally. Scottsdale has gone on to earn a 2018 Certificate of Excellence in performance management, the highest distinction, from the International City/County Management Association.

If it’s a flaw in a process that’s causing shortcomings in performance, Scottsdale has a solution for that, too: a cross-departmental team that helps colleagues from across City Hall implement process improvements. A recent project involved modernizing the website for reserving facilities like picnic areas or volleyball courts from the Parks & Recreation Department. What was once a landing page with instructions to call a landline transformed into a full-service resource for determining availability and making a booking. Use of the website increased 200 percent in the first month following the redesign. Most importantly, residents are happier, and the ability to provide better customer service is boosting morale among department employees.

Making Every Drop Count

The Scottsdale Water Department Director Brian Biesemeyer was acting City Manager when Scottsdale’s open data work got underway, so it’s no surprise that he’s pointing his team to the numbers to make sure “every drop counts,” as he aptly puts it. As a desert city, Scottsdale understands the value of water to residents and the economy.

Scottsdale’s Central Arizona Project water treatment plant on its Water Campus.

Each year, by October 1, the department must submit its water order for the following year — meaning calculations for projected water needs are already underway 14 months out. In 2018, by using predictive analytics, there was a difference of fewer than 100 million gallons (or 0.4%) between planned and actual water use. An inaccurate prediction could have required tapping into underground aquifers — a crucial reserve in this arid city — or paying for water it didn’t use. An accurate water order not only saved money; it allowed the department to continue to recharge local aquifers. In doing so, the City continued a 20-plus-year streak of pumping less groundwater out of its aquifers than it puts back in. Scottsdale was the first city in Arizona to achieve this feat — known as safe yield — and has received the Sustainable Water Utility Management Award, from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the highest industry recognition for municipal water providers. Accurate data analysis and transparency help drive better planning practices that benefit Scottsdale residents now and over the long term.

Data analysis has also saved the department nearly half a million dollars each year by tracing the need for costly meter replacements in one part of the City to a pH imbalance, now corrected, originating from the water plant serving the affected area.

Gathering BITS of Insight

Scottsdale regularly communicates with residents on everything from issuing water bills to recruiting new employees. When Scottsdale joined What Works Cities, it expressed an interest in identifying which messages resonate best with local residents. Scottsdale city staff teamed up with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to determine the answer by using randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of messaging and keep tweaking them accordingly. Pretty soon, they identified messages on utility bills that led to more customers donating $1 per month to local nonprofits, or signing up for paperless billing, a more eco-friendly, cost-effective option.

After ending technical assistance with BIT, the City created a team of internal consultants — the Behavioral Insights Team Scottsdale, or BITS — to carry the work forward by helping staff in departments across City Hall apply behavioral science to their projects. The department that’s engaged most with BITS has been Human Services; they’ve identified effective messaging to recruit more volunteers for programs focused on assisting vulnerable seniors, including Beat the Heat and Adopt-a-Senior.

Most recently, they’ve focused on Adopt-a-Family, a program that recruits volunteers to provide food and gifts for income-eligible families during the holiday season. Human Services Specialist Sue Oh recalls a 2018 volunteer who received a family’s wish list, which included a request for a boy’s polo, and wanted to find out what style the child wanted.

When Oh reached out on behalf of the volunteer, she learned that the child’s mother had passed away; his grandmother was now caring for him and his siblings. Oh related this to the volunteer, who began to cry and shared that her husband had recently passed away. She said, “I know this is what I’m supposed to do,” Oh recalls, and voiced her plans to volunteer again this holiday season.

By integrating testing into communications, Scottsdale is more effectively and efficiently engaging with its residents.

The Road Ahead

Scottsdale’s Traffic Management Center.

Sometimes the effects of using data are quietly unfolding behind the scenes of what most residents see on a daily basis. Take the City’s Traffic Management Center, where analyzing the effects of altering traffic signals after prior accidents has informed the development of data-based, location-specific plans for minimizing traffic jams after future accidents. Now staff are turning those human-gathered insights into algorithms that will eventually allow machine learning to respond with greater precision.

There’s a lesson here: Getting from point A to point B in the best way possible is a great goal for the road — and a useful metaphor for driving progress effectively — but it always involves planning ahead. As Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell drives back to City Hall after our visit to the Traffic Management Center, he paraphrases how a former council member once put it: “See those trees planted there? They’re there because someone in the past was thinking about the future.”

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San Francisco, California, USA

San Francisco: Building Stronger Neighborhoods and a Data-Fluent City Hall.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Environment, Health & Wellness, High-Performing Government

At a Glance


Since becoming one of the first local governments in the country to pass an open data policy in 2009, the City has continued to build on its commitment to transparency and putting data at the core of decision-making.


Surveyed 500 residents in five neighborhoods to determine and address the top concerns that have the greatest impact on the residents’ quality of life.


Implemented data skillbuilding courses for City staff resulting in each saving an average of 1.4 hours weekly — translating into $1.7 million in savings annually for the City.

San Francisco’s Fix-It Efforts

Residents of San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood gathered one evening with city staff outside the local BART train station in preparation for a Fix-It walk. The group would spend the next two hours walking around, noting problems such as street light outages or traffic congestion and developing a plan for repairs.

Judy, a Glen Park resident for 30 years, says she joined the Fix-It effort so that she could “get involved before the changes are implemented, rather than complaining about them after the fact.” That’s exactly what Fix-It Director Sandra Zuniga wants. “Doing fixes the community doesn’t want me to do is a waste of my time,” she explains.

Fix-It Director Sandra Zuniga speaks with a resident before a Fix-It walk in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood.

The late Mayor Ed Lee launched the Fix-It initiative in May 2016 as part of his Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Promise to improve the quality of life in San Francisco. Making the city a better place to live and providing more efficient government services are part of his vision for San Francisco’s open data strategy as well. Since passing an open data policy in 2009 — becoming one of the first local governments in the country to do so — the City has continued to build on its commitment to transparency and putting data at the core of decision-making.

Fix-It is a great example of how data can ensure that cities are targeting the neediest communities. Initially, Fix-It was rolled out in five pilot neighborhoods where the City received a lot of complaints. Before Mayor Lee decided to expand the program into 20 more neighborhoods, the team surveyed some 500 residents in five languages in five neighborhoods to determine the top concerns that have the greatest impact on residents’ quality of life. The team then worked with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation to map data from 311 and the San Francisco Police Department to visualize where those three concerns were most concentrated, leading to the identification of new target neighborhoods.

A handout distributed to attendees of the Glen Park Fix-It walk maps problem areas they identified during a community meeting held a few weeks prior.

In City Hall, Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro directs efforts to ensure that the broadest, best use of data is embedded in the City’s culture through DataSF, a team responsible for maintaining the City’s open data portal and supporting staff with data. DataSF offers a four-month engagement to departments that identify a challenge ripe for data science. Receiving the assistance is a two-way street, however, so each department must remain committed to a service change, if that’s where the data leads. The first cohort has been tackling issues that include keeping WIC-eligible women and their infants enrolled in a nutrition program and increasing eviction prevention.

Since 2014, Data Academy, a partnership between DataSF and the Controller’s Performance Unit, has grown from a handful of workshops on data visualization to nearly 20 courses on behavioral economics, information design, lean process mapping, and more. The goal, according to Bonaguro, is to “empower staff with the data skills that help them thrive.” In turn, they’re helping the City thrive as well. By March 2017, more than 1,700 city staff had attended training, and by taking what they’ve learned back to their teams, they are each saving an average of 1.4 hours weekly — translating into $1.7 million in savings annually for the City.

The City’s Performance Director, Peg Stevenson, notes that increasing staff capacity has prompted employees to help each other to problem-solve. There’s another ripple effect as well: policymakers are more frequently asking for data, and there are clear benefits for residents, too.

As the City continues to apply data to efforts promoting “real-time democracy on the ground,” as Bonaguro describes Fix-It, residents like Judy are showing up and demanding it.

She may just be starting to see the presence of Fix-It in her neighborhood, but Judy already seems to have a hunch that the effect of small fixes can really add up.

“It’s these little things that make your life good or bad,” she says.

Read more about San Francisco’s data journey here.

“Data helps people better understand what they should be expecting from the government.”

Deputy Chief of Staff of the Mayor Kate Howard

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Salinas, California, USA

Salinas Data-Driven Youth Violence Prevention Strategy.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Cross-Sector, Health and Wellness, Public Safety. Youth Development

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance


Implemented a strategic, data-driven plan that directed increased funding to a street outreach program that decreased the youth assault victim rate from 22% in 2007 to less than 10% in 2019. That success came from implementing a comprehensive approach to violence reduction.


Conducted a three-year data-driven effort that helped provide a clearer picture of how the city’s police department could better match calls for service with staffing and police officer beats.


Used online capacity assessments to help City staff concentrate outreach efforts efficiently and boost the effectiveness of external partnerships.

Making Safe Choices

In 2010, the Obama administration kicked off a pilot program to address violence in some of America’s toughest places. On the shortlist, alongside large urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, and Boston, was the midsize Central California city of Salinas.

The problems Salinas faced were not well known on the national stage, but residents were all too familiar with the gang violence plaguing their city. In just the first three months of the year prior, Salinas had seen a dozen homicides — and victims of violence were largely people under the age of 25. The inclusion of Salinas in the federal pilot highlighted both the severity of the problem and the potential to solve it.

“The others were bigger cities with bigger problems, but our crime rate was just as high,” says Jose Arreola, community safety administrator for the City of Salinas and director of the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP). Led by the City’s community safety division, CASP launched in 2008 to convene public and private stakeholders around the problem of youth violence. The program caught the eye of Justice Department officials who saw its potential.

As a result of the federal support, CASP was able to implement a strategic, data-driven plan that resulted in the rate of youth assault victims dropping from 22% in 2007 to less than 10% in 2019. That success came from implementing a comprehensive approach to violence reduction that involved increased funding to a street outreach program based on an assessment of gaps in current services provided by the City and nonprofits. The youth victim rate continued to drop in 2020, but increased slightly in 2021. Arreola attributes the increase to disruption of in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed schools and paused street outreach efforts.

The successful violence prevention strategy is a major example of how Salinas’ commitment to foundational data-driven practices — especially performance & analytics and evaluations — has translated into meaningful results.

“The data has shown us that we’re moving in the right direction in terms of strategy and tactics.”

Community Safety Administrator Jose Arreola

‘Relationships Are Key’

What worked in Salinas is two-fold. Externally, CASP deploys a street outreach team that takes time to build trust and relationships with gang-affiliated youth. The aim is to reach individuals who are at risk before they become a victim of violence. Internally, the program convenes agencies and nonprofits and engages with them regularly, so that CASP staff can fast-track youth to the right types of services.

Four years ago, high school administrators identified the need to have on-site mental health services for students. Through CASP, the school district was able to connect with the City’s behavioral health department to place counselors at each school. They are still there today, a testament to the lasting effects of the program’s connections.

“The whole strategy of CASP is that relationships are key,” Arreola says.

CASP staff and partners at a 2016 meeting. Image courtesy of the City of Salinas.

His team relies on data to track the program’s progress. They work in partnership with the Monterey County Health Department to process data (from the police department and other agencies) and determine what is statistically significant. Homicide data, for example, is not useful in determining what drives violence, since it tends to be erratic. Heat maps that identify areas where violent assaults happen have been more helpful in guiding where the program directs its efforts, and in showing that it works. Arreola says his team is particularly proud of how the maps show hotspots diminishing over time.

“That represented thousands of youth not victimized by violence and thousands of families not living in fear,” he said.

CASP also uses data in the form of capacity assessments to gauge the engagement levels of existing partners, which helps City staff concentrate outreach efforts efficiently and boost the effectiveness of CASP’s external partners. Assessments have also helped identify new partners. For example, mindful that hospital-based violence intervention programs have proven to be valuable parts of other cities’ comprehensive strategies, the City launched a pilot out of the Natividad Medical Center’s Level II Trauma Center. The program, which offers trauma-informed care to violently injured patients, is now permanent.

Another reason CASP has been so effective is that it bridges a common gap among cities with gang violence: It’s not easy to connect young people who have dropped out of school with services. They often do not get any help until they make contact with the justice system after being arrested.

Having the data to show that CASP works helps sustain the effort. The initiative is now supported by a variety of funders including foundations and government grants.

“Funding for something like this can be a tough sell. Ideologically, a lot of people believe kids involved in this lifestyle are making a negative choice and don’t deserve help. That’s a hard narrative to push back against.”

Community Safety Administrator Jose Arreola

An Evolving Police Department

The progress Salinas has made in reducing gang and youth violence has coincided with a period of transformation within the City’s police department. One goal was to make the department’s officer corps look more like the people they interact with.

As the city’s population shifted from 47% Hispanic in 2016 to 73% Hispanic in 2021, the police department shifted its hiring practices to prioritize adding Spanish-speaking staff. Over that period, it has hired an additional 26 officers who are Hispanic, for a total of 73. The department also more than doubled the number of female officers over that period.

A Salinas police officer at work. Image courtesy of the City of Salinas.

“We can truly say that we are the community and the community is the police department,” Police Chief Roberto Filice says.

The department also embarked on an efficiency study in 2017, a three-year data-driven effort that helped provide a clearer picture of how it can better match calls for service with staffing and police officer beats. As a result, it may implement a new beat system for the first time in three decades to spread the workload more evenly across staff.

The department also piloted a fourth shift this year that helped align staffing with times of day when calls for service are more frequent. The fourth shift, which overlapped with existing morning and afternoon shifts, helped the department maintain its response time — four minutes and 28 seconds — even as it saw an increase in calls and operated with an overall reduced staff. In the last four years, 15 positions have been cut from the force due to budget reductions: the equivalent of an entire shift.

Chief Filice says he won’t be able to continue the fourth shift or make the beat changes immediately due to the staffing shortage, but he is confident that the numbers demonstrate the value in innovating and realigning the department to fit the community’s evolving needs.

“I am a data-driven person. I love using technology to make us more efficient.”

Salinas Police Chief Roberto Filice

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Portland, Oregon, USA

Keep Portland Data-Driven.

Project Type:
Communications, Health and Wellness, High-Performing Government, Public Safety

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance


Continually using data to scale up programs that work and moving away from programs that don’t – making the most of limited resources and improving the delivery of services to residents.


Used randomized control trials to test the best way to encourage social distancing during the early days of COVID-19.


To reimagine public safety services, Portland Street Response used geographical data to determine whether a situation warrants a response from police or mental and/or physical support services teams – which helped determine which areas were in most need of social service resources.

Celebrating Oregon

Portland, Oregon has long been celebrated for thriving cultural scenes that produce outstanding artisanal foods, craft beer, and music. Talk to a good governance wonk about the City, though, and something else might come up: randomized control trials. One of the most rigorous tools for evaluating whether something actually works as intended, the trials were all over the news in recent years as pharmaceutical companies developed COVID-19 vaccines. But governments are increasingly using this valuable evidence-building innovation tool as well. Portland has been a trend-setter.

Over the past few years, the City has emerged as a public-sector leader in data-driven evaluations, leveraging randomized control trials to support social distancing public health messaging, police recruitment, and disaster preparedness efforts. By learning what works, city leaders have been able to scale up programs and messages with confidence, making the most of limited resources and improving the delivery of services to residents. And if a trial reveals an intervention doesn’t have impact? That’s valuable too, allowing staff to pivot away from less effective ends to different approaches, and avoid wasting time and city resources.

Building the City’s Evaluation Muscle

“The reality is that sometimes what we think will work doesn’t work,” says Lindsey Maser, who works in the City’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “Rigorous, data-driven evaluation methods allow us to understand what works, for whom, and by how much.”

Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Lead Lindsey Maser

Maser coordinates citywide behavioral science and evaluation efforts, and has spent the last half-decade working with staff across the City to strengthen Portland’s evaluation muscles with support from The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), an expert partner of What Works Cities.

As of early 2021, staff across the City have run 19 different randomized control trials. The basic approach of these trials is this: create statistically similar test groups, including one that experiences the intervention and one that does not. Then compare the results of the groups to see if the behavior of intervention group participants changed in desired ways.

One example: Testing the best way to encourage social distancing during the early days of COVID-19. In April 2020, when it became clear the City needed to deliver effective public health messages to residents, Maser and staff at the Bureau of Emergency Management jumped at the opportunity to work with BIT. They got to work designing and testing posters to encourage grocery shoppers to stay six-feet away from store staff and customers to prevent the spread of the virus.

The eight poster designs tested, with the winning design indicated by the red circle. More information via the City of Portland’s website.

Eight variations of a poster were tested via an online randomized controlled trial. Among other things, the results showed that using a message of duty to protect others and showing an image of grocery store staff increased the number of people who understood and remembered the need to stay six feet apart.

“It was incredibly helpful to be able to test a bunch of ideas so quickly and move forward with confidence,” Maser says. The City distributed copies of the poster to grocery stores and heard grateful feedback from store owners who were worried about their staff’s safety. BIT helped design the poster based on COVID-related messaging trials done elsewhere, and then shared Portland’s findings with governments across the U.S. and abroad.

The full version of the winning poster from Portland. Image courtesy of the City of Portland.

“Portland takes every opportunity to pursue meaningful evaluations. Its staff knows how to scope an opportunity, and they have the skills to follow through due to their range of evaluation experiences across departments.”

BIT North America Principal Advisor Carolina Toth

The City’s commitment to evaluations has inspired other cities, and they’ve been quick to join BIT-led multi-city trial cohorts, including efforts to decrease 911 dispatcher burnout and increase voter turnouts.

A New Evaluation Normal

Maser is proud of the City’s evaluation efforts and how they’ve generated data to show the best path forward. But she also notes that randomized control trials can be time-consuming and require new ways of working. Building a strong muscle for evaluation work often requires cross-departmental collaboration and buy-in. That can be challenging, especially in the last large U.S. city operating under a commission form of government, in which the executive function is split amongst members of council. This structure has a tendency to breed silos, but Portland has risen to meet this challenge, showing other cities that there’s always a way.

And then there’s the reality that not all trials offer decisive results for the City.

“We’ve tested things we thought would have a positive impact, and then saw no effect,” Maser said. “While it can be disappointing, we always learn something that helps us keep improving.” In some trials, teams have realized they had to do something bigger to have an impact.

“The scale of the intervention needs to meet the scale of the problem. Having clear data gives staff evidence to advocate for more resources.”

Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Lead Lindsey Maser

Portland’s culture of data-driven evaluation has spread across the City. After working with BIT on multiple randomized control trials, city staff have started running their own. A staff member with the Environmental Services department tested different approaches to increase signups for a water bill discount program, and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management ran a trial aiming to increase city employee preparedness for earthquakes. All this work is made visible to city staff via an internal e-newsletter and the public via the City’s website.

One high-visibility data-driven pilot launched in early 2021 is Portland Street Response, part of city efforts to reimagine public safety services. Designed in partnership with Portland State University, the program aims to assist people experiencing homelessness or low-acuity behavioral health issues. If 911 dispatchers determine a situation does not warrant a response from police, firefighters, or an ambulance service, a street response team featuring a therapist, paramedic, and two community health workers is sent instead.

The Portland Street Response Team does a “team huddle” on the pilot’s launch day (February 21, 2021), just before heading out to answer their first call. Image courtesy of the City of Portland.

The pilot’s geographical focus is the product of an analysis showing that 60 percent of resident complaints received via 911 calls occurred in the greater Lents neighborhood. It’s a highly diverse half-square-mile area — 150 languages are spoken by Lents residents — that lacks social service resources. The pilot kicked off in February 2021 and expanded its boundaries in April. With additional street response teams added as time goes on, the City expects to be handling 30,000 service calls annually by 2022, with the twin goals of addressing the root causes of homelessness and reducing demand for police and fire department services. The City tracked data to support its evaluation of the pilot’s impact after six months and one year.

For Mayor Ted Wheeler, a data-driven mindset has become the norm in the City and the benefits are clear.

“I’m seeing and hearing more and more from staff who are embracing the benefit of evaluations. I don’t know of a single project in the City that does not use some kind of reliable statistic, survey, or data. Ultimately, that leads to more effective city communications, policies, and programs for residents.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler

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