Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program is designed to teach civic leaders in small and mid-sized metros–cities with a population between 100,000 and 1 million–how to use data collection and evidence-backed decision-making strategies to improve residents’ lives. But because many cities share similar problems, the program, which started in April 2015, has always had a broader goal: to recruit at least 100 places willing to try creating a network of test beds to share what’s working (or not), in hopes of speeding learning curves and adoption.
Less than three years into the effort, the nonprofit hit its target adoption rate, adding five new participants to the cohort. That includes Columbia, South Carolina, Honolulu, Hawaii, and Long Beach, California, as well as Grand Rapids Michigan and Irving, Texas. In many places, the core principles are the same: tracking lots of quality of life indicators that will hopefully help officials formulate new fixes. Some of these cities also have specific needs to address immediately, like stormwater issues (Columbia), affordable housing and homelessness (Honolulu), and finding ways to attract and grow new business (Long Beach).
While the program has met its initial goal, a What Works Cities spokesperson says that it will continue to add more cities, although exact details for the next phase have yet to be released. There’s certainly demand: Two-thirds of the nearly 300 eligible cities in America have applied for inclusion. Simone Brody, the initiative’s executive director says that’s because the obvious “domino” effect. The total class of participants represents efforts geared toward 31 million residents across 39 states. The 100 cities have a combined budget of $104 billion total or some serious R&D money.
“You’re seeing the movement kind of cascade beyond the early adopters,” Brody says. “These [latest] cities were not sort of cutting edge data cities, but are really excited to embrace and take this on.”
Overall, two issues affecting many places are homelessness and eroding trust in law enforcement. In many cases, solving homelessness starts with identifying how those affected ended up in that situation, which might be different in a fast growing city compared to one with a stalled economy.
Bloomberg’s methodologies encourage cities to focus on plans that have been tested and have proven results, pressing service providers to gear their efforts in those directions. (For instance, the number of hot meals or showers that a shelter provided might not rank as high as a measure of effectiveness as how many people it helped enroll in housing voucher, job search, or substance abuse programs.) Ultimately, Brody says, city leaders are looking for outcome-dependent solutions: these places are setting firm progress goals, and asking partners to track and measure their own progress to ensure impacts get made.
Engendering more trust in a city’s police officers is tricky, particularly as police shootings continue. “There’s a lot of work being done around how we diversify our police forces,” Brody says (whether that’s a solution to broader issues around policing is another story). That starts with recruitment practices. “How do you change the way people feel about joining the police force?” she asks.
At least 13 cities are sharing data around this issue, with some promising results in Chattanooga, which saw a boost in the number of minorities and women joining its department by changing how the job was advertised. “Instead of focusing on joining the police force as a sort of commitment to their community, they were focused on the challenge of the job,” Brody says. “Even just that small tweak in thinking about what is attracting certain kinds of people to join certain professions has been very interesting and we’re seeing dramatic changes there.”
It’s a start but the solving such a pressing issue isn’t just up to Chattanooga anymore. A bunch of smart solutions in separate places should hopefully add up to a universal toolkit for larger change.