Leveling Up: Arlington, San Francisco, and Seattle All Get the Gold

2020 Certification Level: Gold

Congratulations to three cities that refuse to settle for the status quo: Arlington, Texas; San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington. Their commitment to smart, data-driven local government only deepened during the last year — all three cities have leveled up their What Works Cities (WWC) Certification from silver to gold.

How did these cities snag the gold? Since being recognized for achieving Certification at the silver level, all three of these cities have continued to make progress on the foundational data practices that make up the WWC Standard, the national standard for excellence in data-driven local government, and utilizing these data practices across a broader spectrum of departments and services.

In doing so, they have delivered for residents in myriad ways: modernizing communications, smartly expanding a utility discount program for those in need, taking an open data program to the next level or quickly creating useful, data-driven COVID-19 resources, just to name a few. Read below for more examples of how these three cities have continued their forward progress in creating a data culture across the city and are using data and evidence to solve problems.

Arlington, Texas

In 2019, What Works Cities recognized Arlington for fostering transparency and effective government through data.

City officials in Arlington have long been passionate about empowering residents and community stakeholders through information. The City’s open data portal makes an array of data available in one place — everything from building permits to voting locations to restaurant inspection details.

But the public’s engagement with data wasn’t as high as the City wanted. So it ramped up outreach efforts to boost the impact of its open data program, developing new resources such as how-to videos and interactive data visualizations, and increasing staff participation in community events. It published a new “Get Involved” page connected to its portal, providing a clear process for the public to ask questions and interact with the program and the data. And Arlington’s research and analytics manager regularly gives presentations about the open data program to local groups — highlighting ways residents can collaborate with the City and encouraging them to do so.

Arlington has taken creative, thoughtful efforts like these to engage residents around the City’s operating budget and performance dashboard as well, demonstrating its commitment to creating a transparent and open data culture across the city. The City’s Office of Communication conducted a “Budget in Action” campaign for a second year in a row, with the goal of making Arlington’s $523 million operating budget relatable and showcase the value of city services by providing residents with easy-to-understand breakdowns of the FY2020 operating budget. The seven-week campaign included a series of regularly scheduled infographics, social media posts, online articles, Facebook Live videos, presentations at public meetings, and an engaging budget video that received over 500,000 views on the City’s YouTube channel to date. The campaign achieved a reach of over 720,000 through Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, a 104% increase from the previous year’s campaign.

Arlington’s Your City at Work performance dashboard showcasing real-time outcomes and progress on the city’s articulated infrastructure priorities.

Additionally, the city launched the Your City at Work performance dashboard with 87 performance measures to further allow residents to see their tax dollars at work. Grouped by City Council priorities and core services, the dashboard displays real-time data on city programs and service performance measures on city services, from police and fire response times to how much residential recycling is collected each month. Each card, or performance measure, features three levels of data — current performance, historical performance, and specific information about the service or program. Where relevant, the cards are also color coded red or green to help visitors quickly see whether the City’s delivery goal is being met. Per the dashboard, the city’s goal is to “provide greater government transparency through easy online access” of key performance indicators.

The City has also leveraged its own data on the public transportation front. After discontinuing its only fixed-route bus service due to low ridership, officials launched an on-demand rideshare service through which residents and visitors can share rides and save money. The public transit alternative, a result of a partnership with the rideshare company Via, got moving with a federal grant. This past year, based on data showing the new project was successful, the City of Arlington budgeted recurring funds for the service and continues to expand the service area based on demand to increase residents’ access to jobs, healthcare, and other critical services.

San Francisco, California

In 2018, we recognized San Francisco for its efforts to build a data-fluent city hall and place data at the core of decision-making.

San Francisco has long been a leader in the civic analytics community. In 2014, the City institutionalized its commitment to governing with data and evidence by establishing the Office of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) — aka DataSF — with the goal of helping departments collaborate around data. Today, the CDO is part of the Office of the City Administrator and helps lead complex data projects that involve many government and community stakeholders.

But a CDO can’t do this work alone; collaboration is key, and data work in San Francisco involves many partners and teams. In the past year, the City saw the breadth and diversity of these efforts at all levels of city government, from Mayor London Breed’s public communications approach grounding policy decisions in data and evidence to the Controller’s office publishing core purchasing datasets on the City’s open data portal.

Departments and agencies across the city have established strategic, measurable goals to drive performance towards key priorities for the city, including the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s efforts to significantly reduce homelessness, the Department of Environment’s Climate Action Plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the City’s Vision Zero program, which is led by the Department of Public Health, the Police Department, and the Municipal Transportation Agency.

Data-driven Work Supported by Data Policy: DataSF plays a key role in all of this, by helping clear barriers to excellent work through thoughtful data policy. In 2019, DataSF worked with the Committee on Information Technology (COIT) and an interdepartmental working group to pass a Data Management Policy to define and make clearer what it means to manage data as a strategic asset and provide guidance on how staff can realize the full potential of data, including using data to improve and inform service delivery, resource allocation, program management, and policymaking.

The Data Management Policy defines roles and responsibilities for those involved in data management and guidelines for inventorying data, classifying data, managing interdepartmental data, data standards, the sharing of open or confidential data, and data integration. COIT will review the policy annually to ensure they stay relevant and reflect best practices.

A COVID-19 Response Grounded in Data and Science: The City’s response to COVID-19 has been grounded in data and science, and demonstrates the value of data use guided by policy. Led by Mayor Breed, who issued the country’s first shelter-in-place order on March 17th, San Francisco leveraged the data infrastructure, policies, and knowledge already in place to respond quickly and effectively.

DataSF rapidly deployed an internal data-sharing platform for COVID-19 data and leveraged guidance in the Data Management Policy to create emergency processes for data sharing, allowing for the rapid sharing of data while ensuring the protection of sensitive data.

DataSF then worked closely with the Department of Public Health, the Controller, and the Department of Emergency Management to launch the COVID-19 Data Tracker. The site includes data on cases, testing, hospitalizations, and hospital capacity, with an emphasis on equity and addressing the disparate impacts of the disease.

“In San Francisco, we benefit from the talented staff across the City who put data to work. Data and analytics are everywhere, and we were able to meet this current moment because of the collaborative work we did before and continue to do now through the crisis,” says Jason Lally, Chief Data Officer of San Francisco.

Lally continues, “Clear data policies, standards, and tools help us absorb shocks to the system, and COVID-19 is about one of the biggest shocks we’ve experienced in recent history.”

Seattle, Washington

In 2018, What Works Cities recognized Seattle for its data-driven approach to long-term housing solutions and broad performance management efforts.

Seattle has long been committed to tracking data to see what works and what doesn’t. So when data analysis showed that about 40 percent of parking tickets and traffic camera citations were defaulted on and about 25 percent were eligible for debt collection, city officials knew something was wrong. The status quo was bad for drivers and the City. Could redesigned payment reminder communications informed by behavioral science improve outcomes? City officials decided to find out.

They designed a new version of the default reminder card sent to each driver after 19 days and a brand-new courtesy notice reminding drivers of their payment obligations that would be sent after nine days (prior to any default). Then they ran randomized controlled trials over ten weeks to determine the impact on ticket outcomes. The results were clear: the new courtesy notice demonstrated a 13 percent reduction in the likelihood of tickets defaulting and the new default notice design demonstrated a nine percent reduction in the likelihood of tickets ending up in debt collection.

Image of new notices designed using behavioral science principles and rapid evaluation, courtesy of the City of Seattle.

With testing data in hand, in 2019 Seattle moved on implementing the new communication for the 600,000 tickets issued annually. Initial results showed that over the year, the new communications would annually lead to about 22,000 drivers — over a third of whom are people of color — avoiding debt collection over an unpaid ticket.

Last December, Seattle took its commitment to governing with data and evidence one step further by launching Performance Seattle, a new centralized dashboard where residents can see what their City is doing to serve their residents in seven key priority areas: basic city services, safe and healthy communities, affordable housing and livability, homelessness response and supports, capital projects, environment and climate change, and future-ready workforce. Residents can now keep track of how well the City is meeting key ongoing service targets and multi-year goals through interactive and user-friendly data visualizations and infographics, as well as engage with the City on their priorities and progress. Performance Seattle received over 200,000 views at launch and since then has been receiving 25,000 views per month.

Seattle’s data-informed decision-making has also been instrumental in helping the city determine how to best serve its most vulnerable residents. This year, the city partnered with King County to create a new regional homelessness authority, bringing together homelessness programs throughout the county into a single agency to streamline management of programs and services and improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness. The city also rapidly expanded its utility discount program after the COVID-19 pandemic began, to provide financial relief to qualifying residents. That expansion was possible because the city had already tested a better approach to determining residents’ eligibility for the Utility Discount Program (UDP) (more on that here).

Most recently, Seattle launched COVID-19 testing sites in partnership with UW Medicine that now account for 25 percent of King County’s testing capacity, topping 1,500 tests per day. 17,000 tests have been conducted since the first test site launched in early June. Test sites were a creative reimagining of sites formerly used for Washington’s emission program that ended at the start of 2020.

Residents in their cars awaiting a COVID-19 nasal swab at one of the city’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites. Image courtesy of the City of Seattle.

This human-centered and data-driven program used tools from behavioral insights, empathy interviews, performance metrics, and real-time feedback to design the web site, call center, the physical experience, and operations. This effort has resulted in meaningful efficiency gains and a high degree of patient satisfaction. Sites are now exceeding 100 patients tested per hour; of the 3,700 reviews submitted by patients, 98 percent have been 5-star.

A King County resident receives a nasal swab at one of the city’s COVID-19 testing sites. Image courtesy of the City of Seattle.

As one resident commented about their experience, “It was quick, friendly, easy… I was so impressed. I feel so fortunate to live in a state that supports its people to this degree, and I feel so lucky that I was able to get a free test for the pandemic. I highly recommend this testing site. The people were kind, understanding, patient, it just felt so Seattle in the very best way.”

Arlington, San Francisco, and Seattle are three of 24 cities to achieve 2020 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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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.