From a Windowless Conference Room to a Mayoral Platform: Memphis Builds Momentum with Data

2019 Certification Level: Silver

By Neil Kleiman

When it comes to transforming your city into a 21st-century data tech model, is it possible to be both incredibly humble and supremely advanced at the same time?

Memphis proves that it is!

The City is rewriting the rules for what it means to be a smart city on a daily basis. But while Memphis is leading the way, you will never hear a public official — from the mayor down to line-level data analysts — claim that their work is finished.

Momentum Gets Going

The City’s approach to tech and data began in 2011 when Memphis was chosen to be one of the first five cities to receive a Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team (i-team) grant. Then-Innovation Director Doug McGowen began leading a small group of creative thinkers working side by side with the Mayor and agency directors to rethink and revamp major policies in areas of gun violence and neighborhood economic vitality. After the initial success of the City’s i-team work, McGowen realized something most all innovation leaders encounter: Individual programs may see dramatic improvements, but the underlying systems and operations of government will not sustain success without a solid performance management system in place.

McGowen holed up in a windowless conference room in City Hall while he talked with all city departments to map out a rudimentary performance management program. The program has really gained momentum under the leadership of Mayor Jim Strickland. Even before officially taking office in 2016, he had already promised residents to measure results, share outcomes, and hold the City accountable by using data. During his first days on the job, he made his way to McGowen’s stuffy conference room, and what he saw there was the core of a turnaround strategy for the City. He promoted McGowen to Chief Operating Officer, one of the most important jobs in the City, and tasked him with building a performance dashboard that would invite residents into City Hall.

Tackling the Basics

Memphis’s Good Government Dashboard may have its roots in the Innovation Office, but Mayor Strickland and McGowen knew that the new data system needed to prioritize the basics of service delivery before it could take on glitzier projects, such as mobile apps. “This may not seem sexy or be all that visionary,” Mayor Strickland explains. “But people want 311 and 911 calls answered; they want blight cleaned up, and they want potholes filled.”

The seriousness of data and performance becomes clear the minute you step into one of the monthly dashboard meetings the Mayor holds on the 4th floor of City Hall. Directors from across the City’s departments convene to analyze service delivery numbers displayed on a wide screen for all to see. What’s evident at these meetings is the meticulous attention to the fundamentals of performance. “Numbers spur competitiveness, and they increase your focus on core issues,” Strickland noted.

For example, when Mayor Strickland took office, police recruitment had not been keeping pace with attrition, and staffing was at critically low levels. The City revamped its public safety recruitment and retention practices, and Human Resources now reports monthly on officer staffing, attrition, and recruitment. Another instance of data illuminating a service gap has been in the City’s Department of Animal Services, which has been tracking progress toward its goal of ensuring more shelter animals find homes. Now nearly 94% of animals are adopted, up from just 46% in 2014.

A dog recently adopted into its forever home as a result of Memphis’s data use

The City is not only making these internal changes to improve performance; it’s also tracking the data publicly. The Good Government Performance Dashboard reports on different metrics — such as 911 call answer time, crime rates, and police employment — that reflect how well the City is serving its residents. Services that are in the green are performing well, while services that are displayed in yellow or red need improvement, a quick visual cue for even the least data-savvy resident. By opening this data, residents can hold the City accountable for delivering the best services and programs to the area. The Mayor’s support of a transparent government can also be seen in his communication with residents via email blasts, social media, and more.

This is all part of the Mayor’s mantra: “Memphis has momentum.” That is, challenges still exist, but inertia isn’t one of them, and certainly, the numbers are swinging in the right direction.

Streamlining Emergency Medical Services

Memphis’ focus on data has created a culture in which other agencies have the support to experiment and be creative with how they implement services. Take emergency medical services (EMS), for example. Housed in the Fire Department, they were awash with data and resources but were having a difficult time figuring out if they were effectively dispatching their ambulances. “We would just keep getting more money from City Council to ensure we were responding quickly to calls, without questioning if we were providing the most appropriate services,” said Fire Chief Gina Sweat.

Sweat dug into the call data and conducted a full review of services, leading to a startling conclusion: Up to 20% of EMS calls did not require an ambulance. Something had to change. Fire Department Lieutenant Kevin Spratlin started researching how Memphis could connect residents to the right services, such as a primary care physician or a healthcare professional, instead of dispatching an ambulance. “These are not people abusing 911 — they just don’t know where to turn” shared Lieutenant Spratlin.

Memphis’s solution to its strained EMS resources comes in the form of a cherry-red SUV

The City stood up a pilot of what is now its Rapid Assessment Decision and Redirection (RADAR) program, which dispatches a paramedic and a health doctor in a cherry-red SUV to evaluate the caller, bringing the screening exam to the patient. Interim results of that pilot showed that, out of 400 runs, 66% did not require an ambulance.

The program, which is preparing to fully launch this summer, will ensure that all callers to 911 receive the right level of care, promoting better long-term health outcomes while saving money for both residents and the City. In fact, insurance companies are proactively calling Spratlin to see what the cost-saving secret is. “These guys used to never return my call, and now they want to talk to me!” he exclaims.

The City is rewriting the rules for what it means to be a smart city on a daily basis.

Beyond Sensors to Service

Maybe one of the greatest innovations is happening in the Information Services department. These are often agencies that serve a back-office function, such as ensuring that computers are in working order. Not at all content with the status quo, Mike Rodriguez — an ex-FedEx tech executive turned City Chief Information Officer — is charting a new path by leading the City’s first open data policy with the ultimate goal being to visualize the entire city. Rodriguez disparages the conventional wisdom that cities should embrace the Internet of Things, with sensors everywhere, and instead is creating “situational awareness,” or clarity of all the factors impacting an event. To do this, the City is installing cameras that will soon provide video analytics for most everything from trash collection to potholes.

Rodriguez explains his approach: “Everyone wants little sensors on everything. For what? Put a sensor on a garbage can, and it may tell you when it’s full, but with video I can tell you a hundred other factors about the trash, the neighborhood, and the surrounding environment — and for less money.” But as with every other official in Memphis, Rodriguez stresses that these efforts are nascent, and there is far more to learn.

As Memphis rewrites the rules, it’s reminding us that momentum starts where you make it — like with the basics, or in a windowless conference room.


Neil Kleiman is the Director of the New York University Wagner Innovation Labs and a member of the What Works Cities Standard Committee.

Memphis is one of seven cities to achieve 2019 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.

Completing an 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.