By: Julie Steenson, Deputy Performance Officer, Office of the City Manager
On December 21, 2011, Mayor Sly James began fulfilling his campaign commitment to the citizens of Kansas City to implement a program to promote efficiency in city operations. Loosely based on New York City’s CompStat and Baltimore’s CitiStat, he wanted to bring about a more efficient, accountable city government that used data to inform policy and decisions.
So what is KCStat? In its current state, it is a two to three hour, monthly, public meeting where city departments and partner agencies present charts, graphs and narrative around the goals and objectives of the Citywide Business Plan to the Mayor, Council and City Manager. It is an opportunity to dive into city operations through the lens of data – like service requests to 311, citizen survey results, work orders…etc. It is based a lot on a slide deck, but is nimble enough for conversation to go wherever the Mayor and Manager want it to go at any given moment.
Five years, sixty KCStat sessions and approximately four-thousand PowerPoint slides into this program, KCStat has become a powerful tool for collaboration, accountability and storytelling at KCMO City Hall.
Early on, the City Manager’s Office of Performance Management (the architects of each KCStat) set a goal of improving citizen satisfaction with the quality of city services as a key metric for KCStat. The results below show that satisfaction has increased ten percent since the very first KCStat.
Today, as we celebrate five years of KCStat, here are five lessons we have learned as we’ve implemented our “stat” program.
Lesson #1: Collaboration and leadership are the key factors that make it work
KCStat could not function without the executive leadership of Mayor James, members of the City Council and City Manager Troy Schulte. This starts with their attendance at the actual KCStat sessions, but extends far beyond to their advocacy for using data to drive decisions in the city. In addition, programs like KCStat in other communities have had a reputation for having a “gotcha” framework that puts staff on the “hot seat” in the name of accountability. While KCStat has certainly been uncomfortable at times, the Mayor and City Manager were and continue to be insistent that KCStat is about collaborative decision-making to support improvement, NOT about putting something in front of a firing range.
Prior to every KCStat, staff from the Mayor and City Manager’s Offices meet with relevant staff to discuss data, narrative and flow of the presentation. This “pre-meeting” is intended to give participants an opportunity to understand the data that will be presented. Department collaboration has also been vital. Prior to KCStat, there are less regular opportunities to gather a cross-departmental group of city employees around a table, and virtually no forums for shared conversations around a particular city performance measure. KCStat created an opportunity to not only share data with the public, but also to share data across departments in a more visible and regular way.
Lesson #2: Using a strategic framework decreases headaches and provides a focal point
The first full year of KCStat centered on individual departments. While this allowed a deep dive into department operations, it missed the mark slightly on promoting cross-department conversations around big topics – like citizen satisfaction. It also made it harder to define what was a priority to discuss and what was not. Several departments, like Water Services and Neighborhood and Housing Services, demonstrated substantial improvements in those first couple of years of KCStat. The KCStat sessions were only part of the behind-the-scene data-oriented management that began to really improve services in those departments. So, early KCStat served a purpose to orient the city toward data storytelling, but it was not based on any overarching strategy, which hurt its ability to be productive.
In 2013, KCStat shifted to become the reporting mechanism for adopted Mayor and Council Priorities, which shifted in future years into the goals and objectives of the Mayor and Council-adopted Citywide Business Plan. KCStat benefits from this framework because the high-level agenda is set by the Business Plan, which gives a sense of stability to the program. The Citywide Business Plan benefits because there is a regular, public-oriented reporting structure that incorporates data and narrative. Win-win.
Lesson #3: KCStat is about communicating and being transparent
Ultimately, KCStat exists so that the city can communicate and engage with residents, using the enormous mounds of data that exist in city government. Prior to KCStat, there was not a consistent, public-facing opportunity to collectively discuss city data and to highlight struggles and improvements. The potential power of KCStat as a tool to equip citizens came to light at a 2014 budget hearing. A citizen, who presumably had accessed the KCStat slide deck online, stood up to argue against cutting six neighborhood code enforcement officer positions. She referenced, we believe, the slide below, that at that time showed the caseload for each inspector to be over 300, or well above the department’s target of 200. She pointed out, correctly, that the data suggested that fewer officers would mean longer wait times between when a blighting problem was reported to when it could be abated or an enforcement action taken. (The six positions were ultimately funded, btw.)
Since many people won’t ever go download a slide deck from a website, we have made an effort to provide curated data stories. First, we launched the KCStat Dashboard in 2014 in an attempt to make the data from each KCStat session accessible and placed in the proper context. Since its launch, the dashboard has served as a centralized place for data to live between KCStat sessions on each topic.
Recognizing that even the dashboards had limitations in engaging residents in real time, in October of 2013, in partnership with the City Communication’s team, we began live-Tweeting data points from KCStat meetings. Twitter was a good medium to push out small, concise data points with the primary audiences of the local media and advocacy groups.
Turns out, the way you communicate data impacts how useful it is to people.
Lesson #4: Visualizing data well is as important as the data itself
A hard-learned lesson for us has been the importance of data visualization for communicating complex issues into a format usable by citizens and city leaders. These days, we put a lot of emphasis on how a chart looks when preparing for KCStat because we know now that a visual can make or break the story that a department is trying to tell. A bad visual can also just makes us look bad. Last year, a Tweet came across from a local data visualization professional, who called us out on one of our charts. Luckily, she became a partner with us and taught a course on data viz for city employees (thanks again Megan!).
Lesson #5: Do not rest on laurels
KCStat needs to evolve. Though we have learned a lot of lessons over this past half decade, one very powerful lesson came recently in the form of an honest and beautiful critique of how we manage data and content for KCStat. An internal KCStat contributor/customer asked if it was possible to do more mapping out of the content (metrics and narrative) well in advance of each session. She also asked if we could group things differently and get more stakeholder input…all incredibly valid points.
One of the humbling things that we’ve learned is that in the universe of stat programs, KCStat is held up as a national model. We take that designation very seriously and we do not want to rest on our laurels. That’s why we have to continuously improve…continuously find ways to add value…to engage with our citizens…to help city departments and partners tell their stories through data…to continue to provide what was initially promised to our residents – efficiency, accountability and collaboration at City Hall.
And finally, on a more personal note, KCStat has been formative for the Office of Performance Management team in a lot of ways. First of all, two days before the very first KCStat meeting one of our little team’s members had her second amazing child! (Happy 5th Birthday little guy!) Over the five years since we began, our team has grown ever so slightly so that we could continue to add deeper analysis skills and process improvement to our portfolio. So, Happy Birthday KCStat. Here’s to five more years of data, charts and storytelling.