Virtuous competition between cities can have a transparency effect

By John Wonderlich, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation

Earlier today, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the nine inaugural cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification, the first national standard of excellence for data-driven local government. First and foremost to Boston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Louisville, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, congratulations! Your certifications are a testament to your dedicated work making government services consistently and thoughtfully better and more transparent for the people you serve.

Sunlight is one of the partner organizations of What Works Cities and over the past three years we’ve helped cities across the country pass open data policies. Throughout that work, we’ve seen cities lead the nation on accountable and transparent government.

Today’s announcement — and the work of these cities — only reinforces that dynamic. I had the privilege of being on the What Works Cities Certification Standard Committee, and during the process I saw first hand what cities’ leadership looks like in action.

In New Orleans, as part of our Certification site visit there, I attended a meeting of the city’s BlightStat team. Residents joined the meeting to voice their long-burning frustrations about properties that were destroyed during or after Hurricane Katrina.

The meeting was an example of transparent, data-driven city leadership at its best: city staff and residents were able to look at data together to understand what progress was being made and how the city could better perform. Being transparent about how the city is working on these properties, as well as using data to help their work be better, is one of the reasons why New Orleans was certified today, and deservedly so.

New Orleans’ work is something all cities can and should learn from in 2018 — and this idea, that cities can learn from other cities, is part of what makes Certification so valuable. Cities often have challenges in common. Certification encourages them to share these challenges with one another, along with how they addressed those challenges and what they’ve learned. Being transparent in this way benefits everyone.

If encouraging cities to share their challenges and successes makes them more transparent, assessing or certifying them can help hold them more accountable. What Works Cities’ certification criteria show what cities should be doing, and very explicitly rewards the cities that are doing it. This is a public, positive form of accountability — a race to the top, or virtuous competition between cities. A group of people with decades of collective experience working with cities and governments around the world is saying, “This is what you should do, this is what you should strive for.” And cities, by and large, are hungry to do better.

It’s clear that cities want to use data and evidence to help their cities work better for residents. To all the mayors who are together in Washington DC this week, I invite and encourage you to look at what certified are doing and use these ideas to inform your city’s own performance and transparency.

Congratulations again to the nine cities certified today. Your openness and accountability about challenges and successes are a model for cities everywhere to follow.

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We are a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC that advocates for open government.

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