Communicating with a “What Works” State of Mind

7 Practices of Cities Leading the Way

By Kristin Taylor

As cities adopt best practices around data and evidence, communicating ongoing progress provides opportunities not only to celebrate accomplishments but also to engage residents, city staff, and local thought leaders who can reinforce and expand those efforts. But many cities struggle with how to talk about their work, citing a fear of receiving criticism or an uncertainty about how to begin the conversation.

Below are seven practices we’ve observed among cities and leaders that are leading the way in successfully telling their “what works” story, complete with examples from which to draw inspiration.

1. Create a Narrative.

We often hear cities express risk-aversion to discussing their plans; they’d rather wait until they’ve hit a big milestone to talk publicly about their efforts. But cities that have an ongoing dialog with residents about their what works practices create a larger narrative — one that says: “Our city is committed to continually taking stock of our progress to improve in ways both big and small. Here’s how.” With that narrative, in the best of times, your big wins will have a context in which to be celebrated. In the not-as-great times, you’ll have something positive to fall back on in the progress you’ve been sharing along the way.

Example:

Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner used her State of the City address to share how the City is using data and evidence to be proactive, rather than reactive, and cited a concrete example of those efforts. When the city shares updates on that particular effort or talks about other data-driven initiatives going forward, there will be a context for how the city is using what works to drive progress.

2. Tell Stories.

Wonkish or process-heavy accounts of cities using data can prove difficult for capturing attention, but humanizing the work helps to make it compelling. Determine where a data-driven initiative intersects with residents’ lives, and focus on the people being helped or how an improved service made a difference. Ask yourself what the audience would: “So what? Why do I care?” Then tell the stories that would rise above those doubts — like the story of the resident whose property value has increased because of blight eradication efforts in his neighborhood, or of the small business owner whose company has grown because of her contract with the city.

Example:

Watch the interview here

Hartford’s Youth Service Corps was started by Mayor Luke Bronin to foster workforce readiness among at-risk teens by providing them with paid, part-time work. The City worked with WWC partner the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University to create performance metrics to track progress of the program. In this TV interview, Mayor Bronin not only discusses the program and how data is increasing its effectiveness, but also brings on a teen helped by the program to tell his own story.

3. Share the Numbers.

The more you communicate about your what works practices, the more residents will begin to see their city as a data-driven one. One really simple way to achieve that is by regularly pointing them toward the numbers. Doing so allows them an insider’s view into how you’re making decisions that affect everything from how efficiently they can commute to work to how you’re spending their tax dollars. It also shows them the type of information they have access to through your city’s open data efforts, and will hopefully get them more engaged. You can never share enough reminders that data are at the core of how your city does business.

Example:

Kansas City, Missouri, uses the hashtag #KCStat to tweet data shared in its monthly performance management meetings, which are also open to the public. In doing so, the City transforms a routine meeting into an opportunity to share progress and updates with residents.

4. Make It Digestible.

In a world of consumers who demand ever more engaging and concise content, large publications — such as a new city report, strategic plan, or budget document — may take hours to produce, but most residents won’t spend even a few minutes reading them. So break them down. Create a social media campaign to introduce residents, piece by piece, to the key findings of your report or goals of your strategic plan. To share the plans in your new budget, make an engaging video or point residents to a website that boils down the larger document to its main takeaways. After all, the point is to ensure residents can stay informed and engaged, not that they’re reading every word the city produces.

Examples:

The #Scottsdale2017 campaign rolled out top-line messaging of a new city report via social media over the course of a month.

View the full map here

The website Madison, Wisconsin, created for its 2018 Capital Improvement Plan allows residents to explore the City’s investments through charts, graphs, and even an interactive map.

5. Demonstrate Progress.

We all know the old philosophical question about whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no one is around to hear it. There’s a similar question in the world of communications: If you don’t talk about progress, did it really happen? Of course! But perception is also no small matter, and being silent about your city’s progress is one of the easiest ways to make residents assume inaction. Counter this risk by sharing your numbers regularly. They don’t have to be your biggest wins or signify the completion of a goal (though certainly share those loud and proud), but they can still go a long way toward demonstrating that you’re moving things forward.

Example:

After Hurricane Irma hit, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, posted daily updates on its cleanup efforts. By sharing progress regularly, Fort Lauderdale residents could see that their government was hard at work to make life return, as quickly as possible, to normalcy following the storm, even if that goal wasn’t fully realized yet.

6. Identify Your Message-Carriers.

By diversifying the spokespeople who help you spread the word about your efforts, you can reach the widest possible audience. We have found that commitment to data-driven governance from executive leadership is the best predictor of success in this work, but a mayor or city manager aren’t the only ones who can talk about it. Nearly any department head can tie the use of data and evidence to their work (e.g., a police chief using data to show why crime rates are declining). And city staff and frontline practitioners can also carry the message when they speak at conferences, engage with community members, or have other public appearances. Finally, look to the residents who can help, such as members of your local civic tech community, by blogging about your efforts or speaking to reporters, for example.

Example:

Read the full article here

In Arlington, Texas, a local developer, Matthew Taylor, used municipal open data to develop an app that allows residents to quickly determine their trash collection days. “I’m 100 percent in favor of every city doing [open data]. It could change how people live. If someone can find that one application that really does improve someone’s life, that can make a difference. And Arlington is supporting that,” Taylor said in an interview with the City.

7. Get Residents Engaged — and Have Fun!

Putting government and data in the same sentence isn’t every resident’s idea of a good time, but showing residents how data use can make a difference in their day-to-day lives can foster a greater appreciation of the city’s efforts. Sharing the data tools your city has available, explaining their significance, and providing guidance on how to use them lets residents know that you value their participation. And having a little fun along the way can make all the difference in encouraging community members to get involved.

Examples:

View the full portal here

The Little Rock Citizen Connect portal combines police and 311 data. Visitors are greeted with a message from the City Manager that shares the motivation for creating the portal and how residents can use it to find out what’s happening around their home or business.

This video produced by Gilbert, Arizona, introduces viewers to Alex, a character designed to help users navigate the City’s open data portal, and shares why access to that data is valuable.

Getting to Work

Cities that use these strategies exemplify a commitment to sharing regularly, incrementally, and openly. By putting them to use, you’ll be well on your way to communicating with a what works state of mind — and, hopefully, beginning a conversation with your residents that fosters greater trust, inspires new ideas, and accelerates progress for everyone.


Kristin Taylor is Senior Communications Manager for What Works Cities.