Bringing data to urban governance

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Flowers in his new role as a What Works Cities (WWC) Senior Fellow.

As a What Work Cities Senior Fellow, Flowers will oversee a new Analytics Kick Start Program run by WWC partner the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University (GovEx). He will also hold workshops with city leaders and help facilitate the development of a community of city government analytics practitioners.

Flowers served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2009-2013 as New York City’s first Chief Analytics Officer. During his tenure, he founded the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, promoting the use of data to make better decisions.

From our conversation, there were three broad takeaways that may be instructive for others trying to bring data-driven innovation to governance, particularly on the urban level. As What Works Cities and other municipalities continue modernization and efficiency improvements, these principles will be relevant.

It’s about people, not technology

As a longtime public servant, Flowers intrinsically understands that reforming government is about people, not technology. While there is a tendency to focus front and center on technology, innovation is “as much an organizational challenge as a technological challenge,” according to Flowers.

Understanding the bureaucratic and organizational culture is critical in assessing the current state of play, including opportunities and constraints. It can illustrate opportunities for cross-department data sharing to tackle concrete problems. And it can illustrate legacy systems that need replacement, current IT capacity and other infrastructure needs.

It also is important to recognize that each city is unique. There will be differences in resource constraints, relationships with state and federal governments, past consent degrees and different types of leadership (e.g. elected or appointed officials). Understanding these unique realities is critical for implementing change.

We need to avoid efforts that would ‘deliver a Ferrari to people who are still using buggy whips.’ Mike Flowers

Flowers successfully implemented such change in New York City, starting with one agency and building out from there. In his work with What Works Cities and GovEx, he will be helping other cities to do the same, as well as building a body of collective learnings and best practices that are freely available to cities for their civil service training, including resources on analytics and infrastructure.

Employing empathy

Working toward understanding the people and organizational culture requires empathy for the lived experiences of public-sector employees. Within cities across the country are longtime public servants who have deep area expertise and passion for improving service delivery. These public servants are regularly being asked to do more with less. Understanding the mindset of public servants requires empathy to shed light on internal government users.

Flowers warns against the “fetishizing of tech and disruption.” Reform is less about simply dropping down a silver bullet from Silicon Valley and more about trying to match tools with the needs of existing users, such as public servants. We need to avoid efforts that would “deliver a Ferrari to people who are still using buggy whips.” Empathy for those on the day-to-day frontlines can help accurately determine current data literacy and capacity to develop solutions that can actually work for a given city.

Humility matters

Because of Flowers’ extensive background in the public sector, he brings a unique perspective, filled with respect for public administrators. When an external expert seeks to impose an internal culture of data analytics, having humility matters. As Flowers noted, there may be some public practitioners who see new technologies and think, “So you made an app for getting to the DMV; is that putting out a fire? I didn’t think so.”

Meeting people where they are, and being humble about the limitations of technology, can help to embed new tools within existing practices to yield improvements. Having respect for cities’ current technological realities is also important, because working toward data-driven governance is not always about starting with the glamorous, high-profile projects. Rather, it is about hard work in core urban functions that slowly leads to transformation. This often includes the work of making information actually useful across departments without disrupting a city’s flow.