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Bloomberg Philanthropies bets $42 million on the power of cities

A new grant will help cities collect data that proves policy innovations are working, especially important at a time when the federal government is abdicating its role in improving the lives of citizens.

Bloomberg Philanthropies bets $42 million on the power of cities
[Source Image: yewkeo/iStock]

“In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.” That’s how billionaire Michael Bloomberg kicks off his open letter in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ annual report. The phrase has become an unofficial mantra within the organization, he says, because Bloomberg is continuing to make proper data collection and analysis a key part of its focus on how to improve the world.

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The former three-time mayor of New York is upset that the federal government has abdicated responsibility for pressing social issues, following what he calls an agenda based on “alternative facts” to back away from things like America’s global commitment to lower carbon emissions and fight climate change. He’s continuing to bet on cities as a greater force: Convince enough city leaders to act boldly and share what’s working amongst themselves, the logic goes, and you’ve got a collective power that can rival the federal government.

[Source Image: yewkeo/iStock]

Last year, Bloomberg backed that promise up with the $200 million American Cities Initiative to help mayors and city halls implement a vast array of programs, projects, and policies that might improve life within their metros. That includes creating a domestic version of their Mayor’s Challenge competition that awards both funding and coaching to cities with the most promising policy innovations, and reaching a milestone for Bloomberg’s What Works Cities program, which equips the leaders of small and mid-sized metros with ways to collect data and make better evidence-backed decision in governance.

After three years in operation, WWC reached its 100 city target for that program. The annual report coincides with another Bloomberg announcement to commit $42 million to expand What Works Cities, especially to smaller cities–those with at least 30,000 people–in part because data shows it’s really working. (Key findings from the report include how Chattanooga, Tennessee is figuring out new ways to recruit for diversity within its police force. Twelve cities are now sharing similar lessons although it’ll take time to see the results.)

[Source Image: yewkeo/iStock]

Still, an American Cities Initiative survey earlier this year showed that citizen concerns do vary by city size. Folks in major metros worry a lot about affordable housing, crime, and traffic in that order, while people in less populous places actually think less about crime than the fallout from drug abuse.

By opening its services to more and even smaller places, Bloomberg can knit more communities into its idea sharing network. Each spot is a test zone for change with slightly different circumstances. In a way, the success of What Works Cities elsewhere makes a good model. “At the start of the at the start of the program, only 15% of applicant cities had an established process for regularly releasing data and only 30% had a process for analyzing and following up on performance management programs,” says James Anderson, the Head of Government Innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropies in an email to Fast Company. “Now, we’ve worked with more than 100 cities in 39 states to help them improve their use of data and evidence. This represents a change in the conversation around the role of data in city governance. It is now an expectation that cities are smart on data, not an exception.”

[Source Image: yewkeo/iStock]

While it is still unclear how many smaller size cities will be accepted into the next cohort, Anderson says the new funding will be used for everything from new kinds of data training for civil servants to applications that allow cities to audit the impact of their services and see what might need to be changed. The public should also be able to see and react to that. In Boston, for instance, there’s an online scoreboard that tracks how well the city is addressing various issues.

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As Bloomberg notes in his letter, such calculus and transparency is really its own coldly fact-based incentive. “Local leaders have no incentive to build policies based on misinformation because they have nowhere to hide from bad results.” In that spirit, Bloomberg has worked with Data-Smart City Solutions, a Harvard initiative to create a certification process that shows which places are using data in ways that make the greatest strides. For mayors, that’s both another guide and sort of score sheet—the kind of independent verification that might help come re-election time.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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