I have been struck by the national obsession — our new president’s obsession — with facts and which ones are worth proving. There has been much debate about approval ratings, how many people voted, when it rained at the inauguration, how big the crowd was. Frankly, it’s all a little trivial and far removed from actual governance and public policy — from what needs to be done to improve people’s lives.
At the municipal level a whole other approach to facts has been brewing; let’s think of it as a street-level alternative to recent “alternative facts.” City generated data points tend to be transparent and explicitly tied to services that citizens care about.
I was reminded of this during a recent conversation with Kate Bender, a manager in Kansas City’s performance management office. Right about when Donald Trump was being inaugurated, her city was also marking a milestone — the fifth anniversary of KCStat.
KCStat is the umbrella platform for what has become a fact-generating machine in this Midwestern city. It was launched by Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte in 2011 to “bring about a more efficient, accountable city government that uses data to inform policy and decisions.” Now that may sound like some high-minded rhetoric, but since its creation city agencies, citizens and media alike have become far more attuned to local data that closely tracks the ups and downs of government services.
KCStat starts with its citizens. It begins with a sophisticated survey sent to a large swath of residents, the responses of which are then transmitted to city agencies that analyze the survey data to produce a clearly defined set of strategic priorities for the city. These priorities are not picayune measures but the big issues residents want addressed such as improving public safety, street conditions and neighborhood code enforcement. Once the priorities are set, agencies then work together to develop and track metrics for every priority and related issue.
The entire city then engages with these facts. This is most visible in monthly open-to-the-public KCStat meetings in which the mayor, city council and city manager tear into the numbers and discuss what to do about them with an audience of citizens seated in front of them. There are graphs, maps and all manner of comparative tables presented about crime rates and abandoned property. When numbers are down there is no “gotcha” response; no senseless finger-pointing. Instead, participants (across departmental lines) roll-up their sleeves and draft a plan to improve services.
But what’s most interesting is how residents are jumping into the debate. President Donald Trump recognized the power of social media during the 2016 campaign cycle. In KC City Hall, Twitter has long been a tool for talking to voters. KCStat meetings are live-tweeted each month, keeping with the city strategy of using Twitter more generally as a medium for sharing information. Unlike Trump, however, KCStat and its followers tend to traffic in data that is not only fact-based but also directly relevant to people’s quality of life.
One citizen used data from KCStat to argue against cutting code enforcement officers, noting that the city’s own numbers showed caseloads for each inspector to be over 300 — well above the department’s target of 200. The citizen made the data point that less inspectors would lead to far less blight removal, one of the city’s stated priority areas. Officials reviewed the citizen’s data, agreed with the analysis and restored the positions. Another resident tweeted about errors in a chart and was then brought in to teach a data visualization course for city workers.
The media has also been pulled into this new data reality. During dry news cycles, rather than turning to crime story standbys, TV stations are grabbing numbers from KCStat and running stories about city progress or shortcomings around stated goals. In a sense, KCStat is the new “police blotter” for news; rather than over reporting crime or celebrity sightings there is a fresh focus on service delivery.
“This has been an evolution for the city,” says Bender. “We have created a positive data-loop. We have a strategic plan, data around that plan, citizen involvement and the media reporting on KCStat. It is all reinforcing; and it is all focused on what is important.”
Kansas City’s alignment of data with city operations and citizen input may be quite advanced, but they are far from the only ones. Public dashboards, data analytic projects and other fact-based platforms have been established in virtually every large city, and many small and mid-sized cities too. A few cities have gotten clever — Boston issues a daily service scorecard and Louisville hosts an annual data and strategic planning retreat with its city agencies. Many of these data efforts are still in the nascent stage and cities are still learning how best to design them for maximum positive impact, with many governments not quite at KCStat level of operation. But this is far more than a trend as the local obsession with data isn’t going anywhere.
So while the national conversation may be caught in a mess of alternative facts and imagined realities, cities are moving forward, using data to make sure that the road ahead is smooth.
Neil Kleiman teaches at New York University and is the Director of the NYU/Wagner Innovation Labs, policy director of the National Resource Network and founding director of the New York City–based Center for an Urban Future.