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The mayor behind Kansas City’s data revolution

Mayor Sly James

By Sly James, Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri 

When I became Mayor of Kansas City in 2011, residents were eager to see local government become more efficient, accountable, and responsive to their needs. They didn’t want rhetoric. They wanted facts. And they deserved to see progress.

That’s why we started KCStat that December. It’s a data-driven strategy for improving city services. Each month, City Manager Troy Schulte and I hold a meeting during which staff in charge of different services—from public safety to economic development to transportation— present metrics on what’s going well and what’s not going so well. We ask tough questions, demand good answers, and expect to see progress by the next meeting.

We have nothing to hide at these meetings. They’re open to the public. We tweet out the stats. We roll all the data into a dashboard that clearly shows the goals we’re on track to meet and where we still need improvement. This data-driven approach is building trust with residents and it helped build the case for an $800-million bond package to fix our roads, bridges, and sidewalks, which residents approved last April. Kansas Citians told us, through our regular Citizen Satisfaction Survey, that this work was a priority for them and they were confident we’d spend the money efficiently. The ballot measures passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Our success with KCStat is just one of the reasons Kansas City was among the first to join Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative back in 2015. The program connects mid-sized American cities with national data experts, like Results for America and The Behavioural Insights Team, who are on the cutting edge when it comes to innovative ideas to improve government performance. It also connected us with our peers in other cities and established us as a best-practice city for those seeking advice.

While we were already a leader in terms of using data, our involvement with What Works Cities showed us we still had room to grow. Working with GovEx at Johns Hopkins University, we bolstered our data tools, which led to a framework for improving our internal management systems. Working with the Sunlight Foundation, we created an open-data policy and built a platform to make city data easily accessible by staff and citizens alike.

Today, I’m proud that Kansas City is among the first nine cities to receive a What Works Cities Certification. The recognition validates that our practices and policies are aligned with a national standard of excellence. It’s a testament to the hard work our employees have put into our open data project. And it further reaffirms that KCStat is working.

Even so, there is still room for us to improve. Our silver certification level is a great honor, meaning that we are among the nation’s best local governments when it comes to understanding data, tracking our progress and using facts to make decisions. But we have our eyes on the highest level of platinum, and we are already plotting how we can achieve it. With our Smart City initiative and Kansas City No Violence Alliance, we’re finding even more innovative ways to collect and share data to improve our community.

We are so proud of what this city has achieved. We’re using 21st-century tools to solve 21st-century problems, with support from leading experts from around the country. We look forward to continuing to share what we’ve learned with other cities that are part of this network—and look forward to seeing what all of us can achieve together.