Communication as Pollination: Helping Your Local Gov Work Flower

A Q&A with What Works Cities’ Communications Lead, Kristin Taylor

What is your role with What Works Cities?

Kristin Taylor

I’m always on the hunt for stories of cities’ progress. Personally, I love hearing about how cities are using data to make smarter decisions. But those are usually pretty wonky accounts, heavy on process change, and they don’t always resonate with a more general audience. That’s a great challenge of this work, but also a really fun one to solve: how do you make it relatable?

Usually, that means looking for the point where a city’s data efforts and residents’ lives intersect, then figuring out how to tell the stories that exist at that juncture. And I’ve gotten to tell some pretty great stories as a result. For example, San Francisco residents showing city staff which neighborhood fixes would improve their quality of life, at-risk teens in New Haven who are staying safer during the summer, while also learning psychosocial tools, and a senior citizen in Scottsdale who received a care package during the holidays.

I’m also focused on sharing the best practices I’ve learned over the years with city staff and leaders, empowering them to publicly communicate the work and impact of their local governments. Speaking of, if your city has completed a What Works Cities Certification assessment, you should join me for the four-week Comms for Cities Sprint I’ll be leading, starting February 11.

Why is it important for cities to communicate about how they’re using data? Isn’t it enough just to do the work?

Every city has a myriad of initiatives that they’re hard at work on, and data has a key role to play in setting goals for those initiatives, tracking progress, and staying accountable for results. But what if the community doesn’t know about that work or how it’s improving life for them as a result? From the perspective of residents, it’s almost like the hard work isn’t happening. We want cities to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with residents and be empowered to sustain progress in their communities over the long term; these are key reasons why, in this year’s What Works Cities Certification criteria, we emphasized the importance of local governments and their chief executives publicly communicating about their data-driven work.

Communications is an opportunity not only to share that work, but also to craft a narrative about how it contributes to a city’s vision. When Mayor Eric Garcetti took office, he launched what he calls his “Back to Basics” approach, committing to delivering quality customer service to every resident and making Los Angeles (the first city to achieve Certification at the gold level!) the most livable, prosperous, well-run, and safe city possible. Fundamental to the approach is quantitatively measuring progress, but it also goes a step further: ensuring residents can access easily understandable data to see for themselves how the City was stacking up against its goals.

A strategy like this allows residents to see that their city isn’t data-driven because it’s chasing a buzzword — it’s data-driven because it’s committed to delivering the best results for residents in the most efficient way possible. The numbers are a means to an end. Over time, this builds community support that helps to keep data-driven practices going across inevitable changes—in personnel, administrations, strategic priorities, or whatever else may come a city’s way — until they become part of the standard practice.

Cities can be reluctant to talk about their work. Why do you think that is, and what are some strategies to overcome it?

Just as communications is about crafting a narrative of a city’s commitment to improvement, it’s also about bringing the public in, engaging them, and building trust. Think about how you feel if someone makes a decision that affects you but doesn’t keep you informed about their rationale, what they hope will come out of it, or worse, that they’ve made the decision at all. But that’s exactly what happens in government all the time. And in many ways, that’s understandable because local governments face such intense scrutiny of their setbacks, and even their progress.

Many cities I’ve talked with are nervous to share what they’re working on until they’ve hit a big milestone. “What if we don’t reach our goal?” they ask. But by communicating progress — even incremental updates — regularly, cities are sending the message to residents that they’re hard at work delivering on their commitments. Another common concern: “What if we get pushback on our strategy?” The great thing about communicating using data is that cities have the numbers to back up their decisions. What’s more, if cities are consistently sharing their work with residents, they’re consistently building trust, and that’s a great thing to have shored up should something really ever go wrong.

Are there other benefits of communications — maybe something that’s often overlooked?

Shortly after I joined What Works Cities, I worked with the Youth Services Coordinator for the Saint Paul Public Library as she wrote a blog post about how data helped her and her colleagues uncover gender disparities in the attendance rate for a teen library program. A few weeks later, the Pioneer Press picked it up, and it was one of several examples cited in an editorial on how the local government was using data to provide better service. It began: “We expect government leaders to stretch every taxpayer dollar. Innovating to do so — and thereby delivering better service to citizens — deserves notice.”

Teens attend the the Saint Paul Public Library’s Createch program

The editorial board and any residents who read the editorial weren’t the only ones who noticed. Other departments that weren’t featured did too, and they wanted in on the attention! The City’s Innovation Team — which had helped the Public Library get its data-driven efforts underway — was suddenly fielding requests for support from departments they hadn’t heard from before.

Cities often think that internal awareness of what data work can accomplish has to come before they can share it with the world, but the example from Saint Paul is a good reminder that it can work the other way too — sharing work externally and getting public recognition can be a great way to garner internal support.

Image via Unsplash

If communications were an animal, what type would it be and why?

I keep coming back to an image of honey bees. We often take these little pollinators for granted, but our daily lives are quite literally filled with the fruits of their labor. Communicating is to pollinate local government’s efforts, ultimately helping them flower. Building a strong narrative with the community is hard, ongoing work, but without it, the system doesn’t sustain itself.

What advice would you give to someone just starting to communicate about how their government is using data?

As with anything, building a strong communications strategy about your data work takes time, so don’t feel like you have to do everything overnight. Begin by thinking about concrete opportunities to communicate progress that are coming up in your city. Maybe you’re launching a new strategic plan or have just hit a milestone in a program. You could roll out a social media campaign that highlights, over the course of several weeks, key aspects of how data underpinned the priorities outlined in your strategic plan. Or you could engage a reporter to cover the programmatic milestone, offering an interview with the mayor and a resident who has been positively affected by the program. Eventually, you’ll start to figure out how various communications tactics can work together, and the more attention your communications efforts garner for your city, the more supportive people will be of undertaking those efforts in the future.

What do you enjoy most about working with cities?

I’ve had so many conversations with cities where we came together to brainstorm progress they could communicate publicly, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard: “We just don’t have anything to share right now.” But by the end of the call, they’d come up with three ideas and were excited to figure out how to share them. That’s always a great feeling — because civil servants are so dedicated to driving change, but they don’t always give themselves the credit they deserve.

The other thing I love is helping city staff, particularly ones who don’t have a background in communications, learn how to make their data work more compelling. There’s a great question to ask yourself for that: “So what?” Then answer it from the perspective of the audience you want to reach. When you boil it down like that — So what? Why will X person care? — you really get to what matters. It’s rewarding when cities have an aha moment in which they figure out how to make the work they care about so much matter to other people, too.

I’ll never forget a duo of self-described “information-sponges, problem-solvers, and mortal enemies of ambiguity and misinformation” I talked to in Charlotte. They were telling me all about their ongoing data inventorying process — important work to be sure, but not the most exciting story to share. We kept digging deeper with the “so what?” question until they got to this: a request that once took three weeks could now be fulfilled with only two clicks. A government that works better? Check! That was a story we could all get behind.

What Works Cities Certification — the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government — emphasizes the importance of local governments and their chief executives communicating about their data work. Has your city completed an assessment? If so, you’re eligible to join Kristin for our upcoming Comms for Cities Sprint, a four-week opportunity to build your communications skills. Register here.

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What Works Cities

What Works Cities

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.