Mesa’s Drive for Data-Driven Culture Delivers Results

What Works Cities
Jun 30, 2020 · 8 min read

2020 Certification Level: Silver

By Jennifer Park

On the eighth floor, under City Hall’s historic copper roofline in downtown Mesa, AZ, a small team of data experts works in a room known as “the Attic.” Part of the Office of Management and Budget, the team leads the City of Mesa’s data analytics work, providing departments with ad hoc support around specific projects.

For years the data scientists’ work had flown under the radar in Mesa, a city of about half a million people that sits 20 miles east of Phoenix. That changed after the team partnered with the Mesa Fire & Medical Department in 2016 to help them maintain their international accreditation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). The CPSE increased the data requirements portion of the accreditation process. Chief Mary Cameli was not sure that they could pull the required data from their system, creating a possible block to their accreditation. At the same time, she had heard that some fire and medical units were stretched thin due to an overwhelming number of calls. That meant that both the response time and well-being of emergency personnel was stretching beyond national standards, creating public safety problems.

“Prior to requesting additional units, we needed to evaluate our current deployment model to ensure apparatus placement was being utilized to the fullest,” said Chief Cameli. “We reached out to the data team to help us evaluate the current resources and the placement of future units to help with distribution of calls and to reduce response times.”

The data analytics team’s first step was to collect and analyze call and response time data to understand where and when calls to the department were occurring. The results uncovered by the team were sobering:

  • Over the previous 14 years, the number of daily medical calls had grown by approximately 90 percent, on average.
  • The city’s average response time to a call was seven minutes — beyond the national response time standard.
  • Some stations and response units had much higher call volumes and longer average response times than others.

With the support of the data team, the Fire & Medical department analyzed the existing resources against the demand for service. Over the years, stations and response units had been added as the city grew. But during that time, both the demand for service and the type of service changed based on numerous factors, like age of neighborhood and density of housing. Using the demand data, the department was able to realign their existing resources to better balance the call load on the personnel.

One of Mesa’s radio dispatchers hard at work. Image courtesy of Mesa Fire Department via Twitter.

Due to the heavy weight on medical calls, Fire & Medical also implemented two Medical Response Units. These units were comprised of the same personnel as the all-hazards units but did not work the traditional 24-hr shifts, allowing for more flexibility in the location placement and therefore assistance in reducing travel time. The results of the redeployment were seen quickly and presented to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

While the redeployment addressed some travel time issues, it couldn’t address the overall call response time issue. To solve that problem, the department would need to invest in a new fire station in northeast Mesa to rebalance unit locations in line with where calls were coming from. That would require approval from Mesa City Council — and additional funding.

The data analytics team stepped in to help Fire & Medical make the strongest possible case for both the need and the location. The team’s models tested potential station locations against call locations, and identified the best property the city could buy to lower call response times. When Strategic Planning and Analysis Program Manager Mark Castleton and Fire & Medical leaders proposed the new station to the City Council, solid data proved to be the decisive factor. “Reviewing the data and process behind the decision allowed the City Council to focus on the relevant information and to quickly achieve a consensus,” says Castleton.

The data team set up operational reporting that the department can review on a daily basis. In addition, city management has requested that the data team update the demand/response model annually as part of the budget process.

These data-driven results made Mesa Assistant City Manager John Pombier and other city officials a convert. Previously, Pompier, who oversees fire, police, emergency services, and human resources, had made decisions based on argument and rhetoric instead of data-backed evidence and results. If department directors gave Pombier a compelling reason why they needed more funding and/or resources, he would agree.

Since the City’s data analytics team proved its value to the Fire & Medical department, Pombier has changed his management approach, pushing department heads to gather data and then make decisions. Now, all budgetary requests must be backed up with data.

That shift builds on years of momentum in other parts of Mesa city government. With the support of City Manager Chris Brady and Mayor John Giles, Mesa was one of the first cities to join What Works Cities in 2015. It initially focused on refining and scaling MesaStat, the city’s performance management program, with the support of the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University.

City Manager Chris Brady and the Mesa Transportation Department during a MesaStat meeting

Today, all departments now participate in MesaStat. Momentum to build a culture of data-driven decision making has really picked up in recent years. In 2019, Mesa hired its first-ever Chief Data Officer, allowing it to expand the city’s data governance practices. Public-facing efforts have also ramped up. Last year, the City launched HackivateMesa to collaborate with residents on data-driven solutions to community issues.

Mesa’s Performance Excellence (PEX) Training Program is a great window into how the City has built its data-centric culture. Its guiding concept is that if employees are empowered to make improvements with the right tools and knowledge, they will deliver results. The City launched the program back in 2015 with the goal of deploying performance management and data analytics tools across departments to enhance decision making and improve performance. Any Mesa city employee can take advantage of training — and to date, over 1,500 have done so, on topics ranging from critical thinking to performance analytics.

A PEX certification program offers staff more structured professional development, and importantly, recognizes individuals for acquiring new skills and investing in themselves and the city. The Certification in Performance Excellence recognizes individuals for their “exemplary knowledge and effective use of the tools of performance management and continuous improvement.” Fifty-one employees from more than 12 departments across the city have now completed the certification program. It culminates in a capstone project that tackles a real problem facing the city.

Alison Walker, a budget analyst in the Office of Management and Budget, partnered with the Department of Human Resources for her PEX capstone project addressing the inefficiencies of a physical timecard system. Non-exempt employees have to punch in and out of work every day, and supervisors have to spend significant time entering timecard information and correcting missed punches. Walker’s PEX project analysis found that in 2018 alone, supervisors had to make 111,483 additional punches to correct employee oversights, and that the time they spent doing this translated into over $230,000 in wages.

Walker notes that one of lessons learned from the project was that “it’s important to let the data tell the story whatever that may be. Sometimes the original story you thought you were going to tell gets changed based on what the data depicts. Originally, I was hoping to find a way to reduce the time it took to fix a punch. After analyzing the data, I realized it’s better to encourage the employee to record their own punches as reducing the amount of time wasn’t a possibility.”

She presented her findings to Pombier, and the City has moved forward with two solutions: a mobile device platform offering digital timecards and a Missed Punch Campaign to promote the importance of accurate timecards across all departments.

Mesa’s data-driven performance management ethos is also apparent in its approach to utility rates, which have an outsized importance in the city. Mesa is the largest city in the United States without a primary property tax. The consequence of this quirk? With no property tax revenue, the City must be innovative in how it generates revenue. Major funding for an array of core city services must come from places like the water and electricity bills all customers pay.

But this is tricky, because what customers owe is based on their household’s consumption level. And in terms of water, consumption is impacted by how much it rains each year, because rain affects outdoor water use for lawns and landscaping. So for the City to accurately forecast its annual budget it must analyze data on rainfall and consumption patterns and population growth projections, and then set utility rates accordingly. That task falls to Brian Ritschel, Deputy Budget Director, his team in the Office of Management and Budget, and utility departments. “The City is able to more accurately forecast consumption and usage based on seasonality by leveraging statistical forecasting techniques,” says Ritschel. “It informs and improves the utility rate setting process that will directly affect residents.”

Data analytics has become core to the crucial utility rate-setting process. The goal of that process isn’t just to bring in the revenue the city requires for services each year. Ritschel’s team also works to protect customers from sudden rate jumps that would translate into steep bill hikes. Smart use of data analytics allows the City to create long-term forecasts on a 5–8 year horizon, ensuring residents are not shocked when they open their latest bill. Through data-driven forecasts, the City can gradually increase a rate (e.g., 2% or 3%) annually across multiple years, instead of a drastic increase (e.g., 7%) in one year. As the City of Mesa continues to grow, it is vital that the City has a multi-year forecasting process to balance the City’s growth with utility rate adjustments,” notes Ritschel.

Signs of Mesa’s remarkable growth trajectory are visible from the Attic in the City Hall: A construction site for the new Arizona State University campus sits a few blocks away. Mesa had the fifth fastest-growing job market and the eighth fastest-growing population in the country, according to Bloomberg CityLab’s 2019 rankings.

“Data is the fuel that powers our city’s efficient and innovative services,” says Mayor Giles, “and the City has spent the last five years strengthening its capacities to understand, leverage, and forecast data and evidence.” As Mesa looks towards the horizon, the city is ready to both welcome new opportunities and tackle the challenges that come with rapid growth.

Jennifer Park is Director of Certification & Community at What Works Cities

Mesa is one 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.

What Works Cities Certification

What Works Cities Certification is the national standard of…

What Works Cities Certification

What Works Cities Certification is the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Learn more: http://bloombg.org/2o72SzG.

What Works Cities

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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.

What Works Cities Certification

What Works Cities Certification is the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Learn more: http://bloombg.org/2o72SzG.

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