One year in: how transparency shapes and improves city performance
How can local governments best prove and quantify their stewardship of public dollars and related successes? To insiders in the know, a city’s challenges and outcomes are obvious. To the media and residents, things can be less clear. City data is bountiful, but rarely digestible.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., an evolving transparency initiative is bringing residents improved services as well as detailed information on the city’s performance. The robust open data program, StPeteStat, launched in 2018 and has already revolutionized the way the city uses data as a strategic asset.
The open data portal offers the city’s employees and residents easy access to detailed information on city services. Staff members are using the data to improve resource allocation, find operational efficiencies, and advance economic development. The city’s nearly 270,000 residents enjoy up-to-date and accurate information on city services, including police calls, fire calls, code case reports and more on an interactive map.
The data speaks volumes to what was otherwise just institutional knowledge. The city’s goal has been to correct the imbalance of data use by adopting tools that are easy for us to navigate internally and also easy for the public to use to hold the city accountable.
A Public Invitation
In addition to the above useful stats, the city invited the public to openly explore how the city is responding to common constituent issues. The code compliance page, for example, illustrates St. Pete’s progress on reducing blight and improving quality of life in neighborhoods. There, residents find answers to questions such as, “how far can my tree’s branches extend into the street?” Maps of inspection zones and active cases show the most common code violations.
ProjectStat, a capital projects site, enables residents to explore data on all city projects, from pier reconstruction to water facilities work. A commuter, for example, can search the status of a construction project at a certain intersection to plan an alternate route. Prospective homebuyers can explore upcoming or ongoing improvements to facilities they may use.
PerformanceStat displays performance measures for city departments, which came online on a rolling basis. Because of the self-service nature of the technology behind these dashboards, departments are taking ownership of their information and how it is presented to the public — in consumable visualizations that can be easily shared. As departments have engaged in this initiative, they’ve also seen their paperwork shrink. It’s a great opportunity for efficiency to accompany transparency.
Improved Internal Performance
A key component of transparency is data’s accessibility. In St. Pete, data is supplied in a format that people can intuitively understand. This has proven equally valuable internally, as departments themselves benefit from immediate access to centralized, up-to-date information.
Twelve city departments – with six more on the way – now use newly-surfaced data to improve program performance and service delivery by analyzing 349 measures. The resultant actionable insights drive mission-critical decisions about water, planning, code compliance, and public safety, among other key service areas. In the permitting department, for example, we were able to leverage our data to reduce the time of fire inspections from 103 days to just four days.
Case in Point
Weekly data analysis also allowed the Codes Compliance Assistance Department to place the right number of code inspectors into the right-sized zones for optimal efficiency. The department, led by Director James Corbett, enforces city ordinances in a total of 21 zones of varying sizes. Corbett used the portal’s data to gain insight about how well the zones and the associated inspector assignments matched the actual workload across the city. “Sometimes one inspector is overloaded in a certain area at a certain time of year, such as when plant growth spikes, but has more time in the winter months and could help with special projects,” Corbett explained.
By examining the total number of code compliance cases citywide, how those cases were initiated, the amount of time from first report to inspection, and the total time for case resolution, Corbett was able to dig into the “why” behind his information. With new insight, his team reexamined and redrew some zones to more accurately reflect actual workloads.
Revising zone boundaries and reallocating staff time facilitated a more even distribution of resources. “Analyzing the data ensured that there was equity in the workload,” noted Corbett. Investigators with newly freed up time became available to take on additional responsibilities with no budget impact. Likewise, analyst time has been freed up to dig deeper into process improvement rather than spending time running reports.
“As we expand the data we analyze internally,” said Corbett, “one question usually leads to another. Any time we can automate our processes or make our information more easily accessible, we will continue do that and, in turn, continue to use the data to become more efficient.”
“StPeteStat is one of our many success stories,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “We’ve evolved from a city that infrequently measured performance using simple scorecards to one that regularly manages performance using dynamic, real-time data.”
With an expanding number of departments equipped with modern data analytics strategies, continued innovations in program performance and service delivery show no signs of slowing. “Measuring the success of policies and programs is a challenge anyone in government can appreciate,” said Franklin Williams, president of Tyler Technologies’ Data & Insights Division that offers Socrata, which powers StPeteStat. “That’s why we applaud St. Petersburg for using open data to make evidence-based decisions, engage residents, and share with the broader community.”
Debbie Fedak is the StPeteStat coordinator in St. Petersburg, Fla.