A Data Refresh in Renton, WA

Posted on September 23, 2019

ZenCity had the chance to speak with Kristi Rowland, Organizational Development Manager for the City of Renton, WA, about the data overhaul process that the City will be launching this fall. 

So what’s a data refresh process?

As an organization, we’re going to review all of our data processes because it’s been a long time since we took a hard look at what we’re collecting and why.  Until now, the last refresh we did was in 2011. As a City, we do the basics during the budget process – like data collection for performance metrics – but we have yet to achieve our goal of making sure all of the data the City is collecting is meaningful or actionable.

What brought about the City’s desire for this data refresh process, and the realization that making data more meaningful could be useful?

We got to this point – of deciding to revisit all of our data – really just as a matter of asking ourselves what are we spending our time on? If we’re collecting data that nobody uses or looks at or cares about, then we’re wasting time that could be spent on things that ADD VALUE to those we serve.

So for us, it really comes down to our capacity to do good work and figure out if there is space for data. And if there is space for data- and we want to use data because it helps us as a City understand if we’re doing the right things, and if we’re doing THOSE things well- then our biggest missing ingredient is having the right data set and data sources.

Our goal is to move from a somewhat passive set of metrics that we’re not currently using or leveraging, to collecting data that really impacts how we make decisions and what we spend our time on as a city.

We have some departments that are awesome about being data-oriented – like our Police Department.

But, like any city, some of our other departments have less tangible work (more knowledge based) which can be challenging to know how to measure and so their data sets are not necessarily forming or informing decision making but are more of an after-the-fact retrospective- how did we do? and hopefully we’re heading towards a target. This is what we want to improve.

What kind of data sets are you looking at in this process?

The idea is to review all 250 data points that we’re currently centrally collecting. This ranges from all types of data – like typical crime stats; to very action-oriented, widget-counting type data sets such as permit processing times and percent of work orders completed; to higher-level data – like water quality and our bond rating. On top of that, it also includes a resident survey and internal customer surveys that we put out every other year.

Can you give us a specific example of data sets that you want to make more “actionable”?

We’re still very early on – it’s still a high-level conversation – but for example, take Permit Processing. If there’s a slowing down in processing, we might ask, do we need to shore up personnel or is there a kink in our processes slowing us down? We need to distinguish between data that is useful for management of processes (many city processes are watched at a very granular level to ensure quality, timeliness, etc.) from data that can indicate our impact on our residents.

We’re also revisiting the data we collect in our resident survey. Every other year, we conduct a statistically valid survey about specific issues. We ask about safety and health, engagement activities and neighborhood events, resident awareness of different City initiatives and more. 

But the survey happens at a fixed point in time, and really, things can change the next day. Again, deciding to get out of the stale data is more of a question of how are we spending our time.

Where does Zencity come into play in this process?

Harnessing Zencity’s technology is one of the steps in becoming a more data-driven city. Zencity’s platform helps us focus on the right elements of our City’s data and assess issues in real-time.

I think it’s going to be a time saver and I’m looking forward to seeing how we use it’s  aggregated data to inform our decision making and priority-setting strategies. The tool provides opportunities for us to collaborate across departments (particularly in our engagement efforts) and to more clearly understand – and learn from – our impact in the community.

It’s great to talk about time best-spent in local government but how does a city make data a bigger part of decision making?

We’re still at the beginning, but we do have a lot of people in the City who are very excited . Our Chief Administrative Officer, Bob Harrison, has been with the City just over a year and he is asking us to look at our data and question what story are we telling — if our data is telling a story at all. 

Some of our younger staff are entering higher positions, and from what I’ve seen, they’re more comfortable and even expect to be actively using data. They want to work in a way that’s not just based on their ideas but they want the “meat” to back up their decisions and actions.

They’re just more into data which might be due to technology that’s been present alongside their career development paths.

How do you push this conversation through your organization?

We’ve timed this data refresh, at least in part, with our budgeting process because we already require metrics in our process, but it is a bit aspirational to have a complete refresh by that time. You have to start somewhere!

Any last things you want to share with us?

We’re part of something called the Government Performance Consortium. What’s been amazing is that a lot of cities – especially in Washington State – are going through similar processes. It’s fascinating to see the life-cycle of learning that different cities go through on how to use data in an effective way and it’s great to see my peers share their wisdom with us so generously while having startups like Zencity championing conversations around data.

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