Believe in Cities: In an era of post-truth politics, local leaders are depending on data to solve problems — January 25, 2017

Believe in Cities: In an era of post-truth politics, local leaders are depending on data to solve problems

By James Anderson, who oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation programs, focused on building problem-solving capacity within local governments and spreading innovations that work.

Thirty years ago, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The phrase became not only his dictum but, in many ways the North Star of good governance.

Until this year.

The 2016 presidential campaign wasn’t exactly poetic, but at the state and local level, public servants in America’s towns and cities are continuing to govern in prose despite the divisions in our nation.

Indeed, their work might be the antidote to the growing fear that we are entering an era of “post-truth” politics, where raw emotion doesn’t merely outdo fact; it overwhelms it, seemingly to irrelevance, and with little opposition. This only creates more cynicism and less confidence, more gridlock and less belief that government can and does work.

Look at Buffalo, New York.

On any given day, you will see city employees in the city’s poorest neighborhoods hard at work. Maybe they’re up on a ladder using a chain saw to trim dangling branches. Maybe they’re handing out smoke detectors to families who don’t have them. Maybe they’re filling, both literally and metaphorically, a pothole.

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They are part of what Buffalo calls its Clean Sweep program – an initiative that is about using data to engage citizens and shape policy. Specifically, Clean Sweep crunches the data from citizen inquiries, emergency 911 calls and the census. Based on that information, the program targets the neighborhoods that need help most and better structures how that help is administered.

Buffalo is hardly alone. In Mesa, Arizona, officials recently created a “blight index” from data on crime and code violations; they’ve identified the neighborhoods with the most need and they use evidence-based decision making to redirect funding. In cities like New Orleans and Chattanooga, they are using behavioral science to sharpen outreach campaigns that aim to increase diversity in their police forces. Tulsa is one of a growing number of cities making data public and, in so doing, making government more transparent. In Providence, Rhode Island, the mayor takes city data out into the community, where he engages in robust conversations with residents about whether or not the official city stats reflect their actual experiences.

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