Who Cares about Data?

We just received notice that the City has received its third Certificate of Excellence awarded by the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Center for Performance Analytics.  I suppose only a city manager’s heart could be warmed by this announcement.  Most of our citizens won’t care that this is our fifth award, which includes two certificates of distinction, for making a commitment to and implementing systematic use of reliable data to improve performance.

Equally important to me is our publishing of this information on the City’s website so that anyone can see it.  I find it satisfying that some of our worst critics rely on the selective use of this information to make their case against one policy or another.  I use it to help determine how we allocate resources and drive improvement in our organization.

We know that if we are spending more on a service or function than other comparable jurisdictions that we should be looking at our practices to see why we are different.  In some cases, the differences can be explained by unique circumstances while in others we may learn that we need to change what we’re doing.  We have a great current example of improving energy efficiency at many our facilities by using some new analytic tools.  Jorge Salinas, our Information Technology Director, has taken responsibility for overseeing this project; but he is quick to point out that most of the work is being done by our facilities maintenance employees.  We are already seeing some significant financial savings with some relatively simple changes, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint.

ICMA has taken a leadership role in promoting standards for the collection and use of data by local governments, and Albany was among the first cities in the nation to be recognized for our work in this area.  The list of cities receiving the award has grown from less than 10 when we first received it to more than 40 last year.  Evidence-based management is not a new idea, but development of national standards for local data collection and use is comparatively new and will require many years to be fully realized.

We now take state and national standards for financial reporting for granted; recognizing that budgets, balance sheets, and other financial statements are essential to honestly and effectively manage resources.  I believe local governments have a similar obligation to collect performance information and report it policy makers and the public.  We are still in the early days of doing this systematically, although I have seen great improvement in recent years.  Unfortunately, some cities that were once leaders in this area, including Eugene and Corvallis, reduced their commitment during the last recession.  I understand this temptation, but I believe the value of good decision-making information generally outweighs the cost of getting it.

Chief Mario Lattanzio and members of the Albany Police Department are proving this point every day.  The Chief has implemented the data-driven CompStat management program, which was created in New York in the 1990s and has been credited with dramatically reducing crime.  I believe we are already starting to see results in Albany.  Reliable data may not give anyone an adrenaline rush, but I think there are many good reasons to care about it.