What Works Cities Certification Methodology

Behind the Scenes of Assessing Cities’ Performance

What Works Cities Certification sets the national standard of excellence in city governance by evaluating how well cities are managed and whether they have the right practices in place to put data and evidence at the center of decision-making. By undergoing a comprehensive assessment process, cities participating in the program know how their current practices measure up to the national standard and receive a customized path for improvement to guide their progress.

Open to any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or higher, the Certification program is about more than achieving an award or national recognition. It’s a commitment to continuous improvement, year over year, in order to create better opportunities for residents — regardless of whether cities are just beginning their data journey or have already mastered sophisticated data practices.

Certification outlines best practices for cities in 45 criteria that are grouped by eight foundational practices: Data Governance, Evaluations, General Management, Open Data, Performance and Analytics, Repurposing, Results-Driven Contracting, and Stakeholder Engagement. These criteria were developed in close consultation with the What Works Cities Certification Standard Committee, which comprises leaders in the field from more than a dozen organizations that support cities.

For each criterion assessed, a city has the potential to earn one point toward Certification. Some criteria have prerequisites that must be met, or points cannot be earned in subsequent criteria.

Based on the total number of points accrued throughout the assessment process, a city can achieve one of three levels of Certification: silver, gold, or platinum. A city that achieves 51%–66% of the 45 criteria is recognized at the silver level of Certification, on up the ladder to gold (67%–83%), and platinum (84% or more). Once certified, cities hold their status for three years and are encouraged to check their progress across the Certification criteria annually.

Cities that achieve at least 47% of the criteria receive an Honor Roll distinction to recognize their work as up-and-coming leaders in data-driven governance. This status is held for one year only.

To provide a comprehensive view of the quality and extent of a city’s data-driven practices, there are three steps in the assessment process:

  1. Submit an assessment and provide supporting documentation.
  2. Participate in a review call with What Works Cities experts.
  3. Complete a site visit with What Works Cities experts and a member of the Standard Committee.

Submit an assessment

Cities submit an assessment online, in which they self-evaluate their overall practices against the Certification criteria. For each criterion, cities must select one of three responses when considering whether a practice exists in their local government: Yes, In Progress, No. Each criterion has a requisite number of qualifiers that must be in place; these are outlined in our Assessment Guide. Cities are instructed to review the guide and choose their responses accordingly.

In order to validate these data practices and policies, cities are asked to submit supporting documentation and additional qualitative responses. A checklist provided in the Assessment Guide outlines what types of documentation must be provided to validate an affirmative response for each criterion. Throughout the assessment, cities have the option to provide additional context and narrative to their responses.

Once the city completes its assessment, experts from What Works Cities evaluate responses and conducts independent research. The review takes an average of three to five weeks. Upon completion of the review, cities receive a comprehensive report, complete with benchmarking data, resources, and a customized roadmap to improve data-driven decision-making and accelerate toward Certification. All cities are given the option to complete a debrief call with What Works Cities experts to discuss their report and recommended next steps.

Participate in a review call

Select cities are invited to participate in a 60- to 90-minute phone call to further investigate the systems and structures they use to make decisions. The purpose of the call is for a What Works Cities experts to further validate specific responses that may have been unclear during the initial assessment and the first stage of validation. At this time, cities’ submitted responses can be adjusted, positively or negatively, according to whether there is sufficient documentation and/or examples to prove the existence of required data practices and policies.

City representatives who can speak to the listed areas of work are requested to join the review call. These typically include:

  • Chief Executive and/or executive office staff
  • Communications staff
  • Contracting and/or procurement staff
  • Open data, information, and/or technology staff
  • Operations, budget, and/or evaluations staff
  • Performance management and/or analytics staff
  • Strategic projects and/or innovation staff

Complete a site visit

Top-performing cities receive an in-person site visit, during which their previously assessed practices are observed and interviews are conducted for continued validation. The site visit also seeks to yield a greater understanding of how data-driven decision-making has led to better outcomes for residents. Cities receive their final assessment score after the site visit. This score determines whether the city achieves Certification and, if so, at what level.

Standard Committee members serve as advisors throughout the assessment process and actively participate in site visits. The Standard Committee confirms cities with the corresponding Certification status based on the recommendations put forward by What Works Cities experts.

Cities that are currently certified and are looking to increase their Certification level (e.g., from silver to gold) will need to submit a new assessment with supporting documentation and complete a review call. From this group, cities may be asked to undergo a new site visit for further validation of their practices.

Certification aims to accelerate all cities, regardless of size or ability to use data effectively to make decisions. Participating cities join a network of nearly 200 cities that have completed an assessment to become eligible for a wide range of support from What Works Cities. This support includes virtual and in-person training opportunities and targeted technical assistance to build critical data skills. By simply taking the first step toward Certification — completing an assessment — cities are challenging themselves to think differently and hold themselves accountable for delivering real results for residents.


The What Works Cities Certification program is open to any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or higher. Take the first step today by completing an assessment online.