Going for the Gold: Cambridge, Memphis, Phoenix All Level Up

2021 Certification Level: Gold

By John Collier and Emily Ferris

2020 was a challenging year, to say the least. But even as the COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented pressures on governments across the country, many cities deepened their commitment to using evidence and data to deliver results to residents.

Three cities in particular that made significant strides in data-driven decision-making and building a data-rich culture during the last year: Cambridge, Massachusetts; Memphis, Tennessee; andPhoenix, Arizona. All three leveled up their What Works Cities (WWC) Certification from silver to gold.

Since first achieving Certification, these cities have continued to advance on the foundational data practices that make up the WWC Standard, the national standard for excellence in data-driven local government, by further embedding these more of these practices in a variety of ways and across multiple departments. Read on for just a few examples of what that progress looks like in these cities.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

In 2020, WWC recognized Cambridge for fostering innovation across departments through a culture of goal-setting.

For years, Cambridge has made a habit of using data to solve problems and figure out what works and what doesn’t. The City’s evaluation program takes this one step further through an evaluation team created last year to help teams across departments conduct experimental evaluations that identify ways to improve services and processes. By providing city staff with detailed how-to guides featuring templates and worksheets, the team is introducing staff to different types of evaluations while deepening Cambridge’s culture of data-driven governance.

Over the past year, Cambridge has successfully used experimental evaluations to hone effective messages for engaging residents on a range of programs and issues. For example, Cambridge’s Public Information Office (PIO) wanted to increase the open rate and general engagement with its weekly e-newsletter, “CityView Weekly.” So PIO staff tested two versions of the e-newsletter with different subject lines, sending each version to 50 percent of recipients. The content of the email remained the same, but the subject lines differed — one featured the call to action “What Would YOU Like to See from CityView Weekly?”

While the open rate remained relatively similar for both subject lines, the PIO found that recipients who received the specific call to action were significantly more likely to complete a survey in the e-newsletter. Based on the results of this evaluation, PIO decided to implement more targeted subject lines in communications to residents; this helped drive resident engagement with a new daily COVID-19 newsletter the City launched last year, ensuring more residents received important information during the pandemic. A similar evaluation is currently helping Cambridge officials understand what types of images posted on its Twitter account can most effectively engage residents around COVID-19 prevention efforts.

Beyond its evaluation work, Cambridge continues to leverage its goal-oriented culture to innovate and collaborate with residents to achieve better outcomes. One such example: in partnership with the Department of Public Works (DPW) and Biobot Analytics, Inc., the Cambridge Public Health Department (CPHD) has been leveraging wastewater data to monitor levels of coronavirus RNA in the sewage system and inform re-opening strategies.

Compared to individual testing, wastewater analysis provides a more efficient way to understand the spread and distribution of COVID-19 (and its variants) among various areas of the city, thus enabling city officials to make data-informed decisions faster. Cambridge Public Schools used this data to inform their re-opening strategy: the level of coronavirus RNA in wastewater was one of three metrics used by the district to decide when to resume in-person classes or temporarily shift to all-remote learning.

Improperly recycled household items. Image courtesy of the City of Cambridge.

Another area of data-driven progress: DPW has continued innovation efforts to support the City’s Zero Waste Master Plan by reducing the contamination rates of recyclable materials picked up from households. In 2019, DPW met its goal of reducing the contamination rate to less than 7 percent, reaching a 6 percent level. In 2020, after further data analysis and evaluation of interventions to change residents’ behavior, the rate fell to just 4 percent, saving the City more than $100,000 and making Cambridge a national leader in recycling.

Memphis, Tennessee

In 2019, WWC recognized Memphis for using data to improve service delivery.

Memphis has proved the power of data-driven government to improve the lives of people — and pets. Over the past year, officials have used evaluations to confirm that changes to the City’s animal shelter model delivered intended goals.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in effect, Memphis Animal Services (MAS) had to reduce the number of lost and homeless animals it sheltered due to staffing limitations and lower-than-normal adoption rates. So MAS shifted its service model away from the traditional approach, in which every stray dog or cat would be brought into the city shelter, to a community-supported approach based on information that showed the success of similar pilots in dozens of municipal shelters across the country. The basic idea is to maximize lifesaving through community intervention and assistance programs.

But even after emergency intake ended, MAS looked at the data to see what learnings they could take away from this service model shift. The research showed that MAS could have a larger impact by focusing its resources on working with pet owners — so it established the Pet Resource Center. The center provides residents with a wide variety of resources — such as medical care, pet food, and behavior modification training services — at no cost to the pet owners to help them keep their pet. Funded by individual donations and grants, the Center reduced the number of animals going to shelters, thereby reducing the likelihood of euthanization. It also allowed MAS staff to devote more time and resources to helping pet owners maintain ownership of their pets, and reuniting lost pets with their owners.

A resident supported by Memphis Animal Services, at home with his dogs. Image courtesy of the City of Memphis.

After launching the center, MAS worked with the City’s Office of Performance Management (OPM) to evaluate the service model change and ensure it was achieving desired outcomes. OPM’s evaluation found that average calls per day for dog bites and strays fell by more than 20 percent and 40 percent, respectively, when compared to MAS call data before service changes. The shift to a community-supported sheltering program was also found to cost the City less per pet helped than the traditional service model. Through a series of town halls, MAS engaged the public on the merits of a permanent switch to the community-supported approach and shared the data that backed its decision.

This data analysis helped produce public buy-in for the changes as data “has become ingrained in the culture of Memphis,” Mayor Jim Strickland said in March during an event celebrating International Open Data Day. “Our residents now expect the data — and that’s a good thing.”

While MAS leaders made the changes in response to the pandemic, the clear positive results detailed in the evaluation mean the new approach will continue for the foreseeable future. Pets are now more likely to stay with their families and the City of Memphis is able to do more with animal control resources, thanks to data-informed, evidence-based decision-making.

Phoenix, Arizona

In 2020, WWC recognized Phoenix’s use of data-driven planning and decision-making to prepare for population growth and rising temperatures.

Phoenix strives to be a champion of transparent budgeting processes and continuous improvement. In this spirit, each year city staff aim to include more residents in the budgeting process. Launched in January 2020, FUNDPHX is Phoenix’s latest effort to increase transparency and accessibility, particularly among residents who cannot attend meetings related to the City’s annual budget process. In response to resident feedback, the City released the tool early in the 2021–22 budget process.

Available in English and Spanish, the online tool encourages residents to engage in and learn about the budget process. Through FUNDPHX, residents can provide feedback on proposed budget items and share their priorities for spending the City’s money. The tool also lets residents adjust service levels to see what the resulting higher costs or savings would be. FUNDPHX generates detailed reports for city staff that organize all submissions and feedback from residents by budget category and line items in the proposed budget. This information is then publicly posted on a weekly basis and shared with Phoenix’s mayor and City Council so that resident feedback is considered by decision makers throughout the budgeting process.

By allowing residents to engage in this process from home, FUNDPHX offered an innovative alternative to traditional meetings during the pandemic. Over 1,000 resident comments were generated through both FUNDPHX and 14 virtual budget hearings during the 2021–2022 fiscal year budget cycle. Residents commented on a range of high-priority areas including police reform, parks, climate change adaptation, and the arts.

For example, alternative emergency response initiatives received a significant portion of the community’s feedback. Many residents voiced support for additional funding for a proposed Community Assistance Program (CAP) that provides a civilian-only response to mental health-related calls for service, and a desire to be involved with CAP’s design and implementation. In response to this feedback, the City plans extensive engagement with community and mental and behavioral health stakeholders during the program’s implementation phase. Many residents also expressed interest through FUNDPHX for additional parks in Phoenix’s southwest region. Based on this engagement, the final budget report included funding for building and maintaining three new neighborhood parks in this area. This feedback, and much more, informs both Phoenix’s 2021–2022 budget and the City’s broader work to improve its services to meet residents’ changing expectations and needs.

By proactively engaging the community and using resident feedback to inform critical programming decisions, the City’s leaders are proving that the people who call Phoenix home have a say in shaping the city’s future.

John Collier is an Associate and Emily Ferris is a Senior Manager on WWC’s Certification team.

Cambridge, Memphis, and Phoenix are three of 23 cities to achieve 2021 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.

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