With a Strong Data Foundation, Madison Reaches for Equity Goals
By Ambreen Ali
The Madison Public Library knows that small actions can have big consequences.
When city officials decided to eliminate library fines last year, forgiving $282,000 in uncollected fees across more than 33,000 accounts, they had to make some painful cuts to balance the budget. But the need for change was clear: Library staff had heard over and over from parents who didn’t want to get their children library cards out of fear the kids would rack up fines parents could not pay. Already feeling strapped, the last thing they wanted was one more letter from a debt collector.
The library system’s data confirmed the fines system acted as a barrier to equitable access: Low-income residents were being disproportionately affected by the library system’s fines policy. While around 4 percent of accounts in higher-income neighborhoods had been blocked due to delinquency, that figure was as high as 12 percent in lower-income neighborhoods.
So the City acted. “Eliminating overdue fines and ceasing to use a collection agency demonstrates a commitment to equity and literacy,” Madison Public Library Director Greg Mickells says. Since the policy change, the City has seen library card usage by residents from low-income areas rise.
The initiative to eliminate library fees is just one example of how Wisconsin’s capital is using data to identify and eliminate inequities in its services and how it delivers them. The City has embarked on a multiyear effort to overhaul its budget process to place results and performance, rather than dollar amounts, front and center.
The ambitious effort, called Results Madison, involves defining outcomes, strategies, indicators, services, and performance measures for every department and linking those to spending. It’s a product of the City’s commitment to building a strong data foundation to support its equity goals and new governance approaches. In recent years Madison has advanced its ability to deliver results for residents by strengthening metrics-driven performance management and open data practices. The latter involved standardizing data and sharing it, to support robust, automated performance analytics.
Previously, city leaders would determine budgets by looking at last year’s numbers. The goal now, with Results Madison, is to assess what is needed to meet the following year’s goals. Rather than look at how a department will spend its allocation, the focus is now on how results will be achieved.
“This really started with our racial equity and social justice initiative,” says David Schmiedicke, Madison’s finance director. “Core to that was how data can be better used in the City, specifically toward a more results-oriented allocation of budget resources.”
The plan is for a city agency to pilot changes next year, modeling what change looks like for the rest of the government. One-third of all agencies will migrate to new budget- and results-tracking services by the end of 2022, if all goes to plan. Full implementation is expected in 2027, once the City’s enterprise resource planning system has been updated to reflect the new budget process.
The Results Madison effort, facilitated by the Finance Department working with agency stakeholder leads, is intentionally giving decision makers within agencies time to grow accustomed to change and feel comfortable with the validity of new performance measures. While some agencies will have no trouble establishing metrics to track, others might have more difficulty, Schmiedicke notes.
“At the core of this effort is to fundamentally change how we think about budgets, and arrive at a more holistic approach that foregrounds data and results — what we as a city are doing for residents, and how,” he says.
Leading With Data Analysis
Data is taking center stage in other ways as Madison advances equity initiatives. For example, the City is gathering baseline data on city contracts to determine whether chosen vendors reflect Madison’s racial demographics. It also analyzed a wide array of data relating to emergency response services and mental health before designing a $600,000 pilot program that establishes an unarmed alternative response to 911 calls involving mental or behavioral health emergencies. It’s called Community Alternative Response Emergency Services, or CARES.
The data showed that the Madison Police Department was responding to an average of 20 calls per day related to these situations. Each call took about three hours of officer time. “Law enforcement has typically responded to mental health calls, and the data really put into relief how time-consuming these situations are,” says Che Stedman, assistant chief of medical affairs in the Madison Fire Department, which houses the City’s Emergency Medical Services. “We ended up asking: How can we do better?”
The pilot, which will kick off in fall 2021, aims to identify a better way to respond. The initial plan is to pair paramedics with crisis workers who have clinical experience, as well as training in trauma-informed de-escalation, harm reduction strategies, and cultural competency. These unarmed teams will free up police officers to focus on incidents threatening public safety.
Plotting the police data on a map showed that mental health calls were concentrated downtown. Most came in between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. Without that information, Stedman says he probably would have guessed the pilot should run on weekends or later in the evening.
“The fact is that I wouldn’t have designed the program the way that we’re going to do it, and I would have been wrong,” he says, adding that data will also be a key component in evaluating the pilot and determining next steps. “Whether we are going to expand geographically first or expand the time of day or to seven days a week — all that’s going to be very data-driven.”
Through the CARES pilot, the library fines policy shift, and other efforts, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway says Madison’s commitment to data governance is paying off. “I am proud of Madison’s recognition as a ‘What Works Certified City’ — it shows that our work to make data-driven decisions is effective,” she says. “Our focus on equitable and innovative use of data helps us make city government more responsive and efficient. I am confident that our work will bring more success stories in the future.”
Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about technology and immigration, among other topics, and her work has been published in The Washington Post, Bloomberg, AFP, The Wire and Seattle Magazine.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Madison has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The City was also selected to participate in WWC’s City Budgeting for Equity & Recovery program.
Madison is one 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.