Washington, DC: Excelling in Evaluations For Better Outcomes
(Washington, DC, went on to achieve What Works Cities Certification at the gold level in 2019. Learn more here.)
By Sharman Stein
Whether it’s enabling residents to send text messages to 911, establishing a leading “open by default” policy for all District government data, or establishing a unique, in-house team of data scientists, Washington, DC, is using technology and data to improve its delivery of services and outcomes for residents.
“In the District, we expect our agencies to engage in fact-based decision-making. We understand that our decisions affect the lives of our nearly 700,000 residents, and we always want to know how well our policies and programs are working so that we have the opportunity to learn and adjust while we act,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser. “As we continue building a safer, stronger, and more resilient DC, we will continue to use data and scientific thinking to improve our day-to-day operations and deliver good government.”
As part of her commitment to data, Mayor Bowser charged City Administrator Rashad Young to stand up The Lab @ DC, a team of applied research scientists who use data and scientific insights and methods to provide timely, relevant, and high-quality analysis to inform the District’s most important decisions. The Lab completed the District’s high-profile study of the impact of body-worn cameras on policing, and it is now studying the effectiveness of the District’s rat abatement program. While these two subjects are very different, they demonstrate the capacity of data to inform a range of decisions.
Monitoring how agencies collect and use data is part of quarterly cluster performance meetings hosted by the Office of Budget and Performance Management. As part of these sessions, City Administrator Young reviews progress toward milestones and mayoral priorities along with the agencies’ implementation of data-based decision-making as part of their internal processes. The sessions also provide agencies with an opportunity to showcase successes and lift up obstacles.
“Managing a $13 billion, 35,000-person government is nearly impossible without accurate metrics to lead our decisions,” said City Administrator Young. “These quarterly sessions ensure we are being good stewards of District resources, that we are keeping our commitments, and that we are evaluating and redirecting if our approaches are not rendering quality results.”
During a quarterly cluster meeting last year, reviews of the 311 system revealed that there were no standard definitions of open and closed cases across city agencies, no standard response times, and in certain instances, it was taking more than four minutes for calls to be answered. The agency was charged with developing a plan to address the significant lag times. After hiring additional staffing and providing extensive training as well as additional outlets for contacting 311 (via text and a smart phone application), the agency was able to achieve a 90-second response time, 85 percent of the time.
“Mayor Bowser and City Administrator Young embrace the use of data across our government agencies,” said Jennifer Reed, Director of the Office of Budget and Performance Management. “This expectation motivates agencies to be on the ready with sound, reliable data to support program recommendations and initiatives. Agencies also understand that much of their data is now publicly accessible through our open data laws.”
In April 2017, Mayor Bowser announced the signing of an executive order, creating a new policy that set an “open by default” standard for all District government data, including a directive to treat the City’s data as a valuable resource. The policy was based on recommendations made by What Works Cities partner the Sunlight Foundation, and provides a framework to make government more transparent and open while improving the quality and lowering the cost of operations.
The District has extended its commitment to data transparency by inviting residents to view the budgeting process, welcoming public opinion on its data policy, and building in feedback loops so that residents know when their problems have been addressed. The Mayor’s CapSTAT meetings — data-driven management tools designed to tackle timely policy issues and processes with analysis, mapping, business process reviews, and best practices — are also videotaped and shared with the public.
The Metropolitan Police Department embraced the used of data in past years as a tool for improving public safety. The Joint Strategic and Tactical Analysis Command Center pulls together real-time, robust analyses of similar crimes, trends, and background for detectives in the field. The department recently reported an 11% decrease in all crime, which includes a 22% decline in violent crimes.
“We’re delivering people the services they want and improving service delivery,” City Administrator Young says, attributing the City’s use of data for much of that progress. Agencies ask for help unravelling particular challenges, and data and performance management experts are assigned to assist. For multifaceted challenges, resources from The Lab may be assigned to analyze the challenge and the path forward. Recently, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs experienced such a challenge when working to make the permitting process more efficient.
While data may not tell the full story, it gives agencies and decision-makers valuable insight into the District’s toughest challenges. City Administrator Young noted, “Fully utilizing data and evidence is the only way to really manage and have a rational sense of what you’re doing. Anything less feels random, and without context.”