Data-Driven Government in Large & Small Cities

Unpacking the relationship between a city’s population and performance on the WWC Assessment

By John Collier and Lauren Su

One of the most common misconceptions about data-driven government is that successfully instituting data-driven practices is only for large metropolises that can invest significant sums of money into the latest and greatest technologies, dashboards, and talent. At What Works Cities (WWC), we’ve turned to the data collected through the WWC Certification process and from our experience working directly with cities and find this idea to be just that — a misconception.

In this installment of The Data and the Details series, we explore the WWC Assessment data with an eye toward city population size to determine whether a city’s population corresponds with its overall performance on the Assessment as well as its ability to advance certain data-driven practices. We find that data-driven practices and progress are happening in cities large and small: the gap between small cities and large cities isn’t as wide as one might think, and smaller cities are right there with larger cities when it comes to establishing certain foundational practices, making advancements, and demonstrating to their residents that they are committed to using data and evidence to drive transparency and accountability.

Familiarize yourself with the basics of the Certification data. These statistics reflect the all-time data from the 203 cities that have completed a WWC Assessment. In our analysis for this piece, we incorporate data shared through cities participating from the 2018 and 2019 Certification cycles (N=140).

Cities of all sizes have completed the WWC Assessment to better understand whether their use of data and evidence follows the best practices outlined in our national standard of excellence. We have previously made the case that WWC Certification is designed to meet the needs of cities of all populations, large and small. The chart below shows the breakdown of cities by population bracket. The most common sized city we work with are cities in the 100–250k population range, accounting for just over a third of cities in the WWC network.

Analysis of City Size and WWC Assessment Data

We are often asked whether large cities perform better on the Assessment. The short answer is yes, generally. The image below illustrates the relationship between city size and overall performance on the Assessment. As the regression line shows, in general, the larger the city’s population, the higher the Certification score — though a significant number of cities fall outside this trend as evidenced by the wide range of cities above the regression line (indicating the city performs better than would be predicted solely based on their population).

The chart above shows the trend between a city’s population and its most recent assessment score. Each dot on the graph represents a unique city. We see a relatively strong correlation between the size of a city and how well they perform on their WWC Assessment. Many cities, however, buck the trendline and achieve scores higher (or lower) than would be predicted.

Interestingly, smaller cities actually outperform larger cities in terms of progress made from their first to second assessment. On average, cities with populations less than 250k improve their scores by 4.7 points while cities with populations greater than 250k improve their scores by 3.8 points.

Digging a level deeper, when we analyze performance at the criteria level, it reveals more insights about where large and small cities do and do not differ in their data practices. First, we can examine criteria and identify which ones have the biggest difference in achievement between larger (population >250k) and smaller (population <250k) cities.

Two criteria that have some of the biggest gaps in achievement when compared by city population size are OD1. Open Data Policy and OD3. Open Data Portal. This difference, however, should not be interpreted as evidence that smaller cities don’t have strong open data practices. In fact, OD1 and OD3 are actually two of the most highly achieved criteria for smaller cities: well over half of smaller cities, for example, have achieved OD3. This high achievement in open data practices is true for larger cities as well, demonstrating that all cities, regardless of population size, can commit to transparency and accountability by codifying open data policies and making data freely available for public use by launching open data portals. As our data shows, if your city is just starting to build a data-driven culture, the open data criteria are a great place to start!

Now, consider the criteria that have the smallest achievement gap between large and small cities. These small differences we see across city size are due to the relatively low achievement rate across all cities, regardless of population size. These criteria, such as RP2. Process for Discontinuing Programs and PA5. Evaluating Disparate Impact, are considerably more challenging to achieve for all cities and reflect advanced practices in our Repurposing and Performance and Analytics foundational practice areas, respectively.

While few cities achieve these criteria right now, our initiative has intentionally designed the Standard to encompass a range of practices that meet cities where they are now and are also reflective of where the field of data-driven governance will be moving toward in the future, with the goal of encouraging cities of all sizes to constantly strive for excellence and actively evolve their data-driven practices.

Small Cities in the Spotlight

Looking at the data for the 83 cities in our network with populations under 250k, we can see where smaller cities, on average, have higher rates of achievement across the criteria. If your city is just starting its journey towards achieving WWC Certification, our data indicates that the criteria outlined below are great places to begin the work and lay a foundation for some of the more challenging criteria to achieve.

Data Champions in Cities & Submitting Your WWC Assessment

So, what positions in city government are most likely to lead the charge for data-driven governance on behalf of their cities? For cities with populations fewer than 250k, Assessments are typically submitted by an individual or team from the office of the mayor or chief executive, or someone with working knowledge of the city’s use of data and analytics, such as an IT or GIS representative or a finance / budget officer.

But the truth is anyone in city government can submit an Assessment on behalf of the city. All cities that do so receive access to a wide range of free learning opportunities from WWC to develop and improve the practices outlined in our Standard, as well as have chances to connect with peer cities who are working towards tackling the same challenges. If you haven’t done so already, we hope you’ll take the first step to committing to transparency and data in your city and submit a WWC Assessment today!

Get Inspired!

These cities are shining examples of smaller cities taking the steps necessary to be leaders in data-driven government. Read on to learn more about their data-driven work:

John Collier is a Data Analytics and Research Associate for What Works Cities.

Lauren Su is the Director of Certification for What Works Cities.

Completing a What Works Cities Assessment is the first step to receiving exclusive, pro bono support from What Works Cities to continue building a more effective local government. The program is open to any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or higher.

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