What Works in Jackson, MS

THE OPPORTUNITY

Mayor Tony Yarber entered office in 2014 and inherited a city that lacked consistent leadership. (Between 2013-2014, the city had four mayors.) One of his top priorities was dismantling departmental silos and leveraging the use of data and evidence to improve decision making and resource allocation. Since the beginning of his administration, Mayor Yarber and his team have made significant progress in the areas of public safety, economic development, and public works. By sharing data with the public, Mayor Yarber wants these successes to be more visible to residents. Increased transparency would also enhance the city’s ability to make compelling arguments about which programs to support.

During its What Works Cities engagement in 2015, Jackson’s newly created Office of Performance and Innovation worked with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University to implement a performance analytics system that the City will use to track progress towards strategic goals and improve departmental decision making. The Office also developed a plan to share Jackson’s progress towards these goals with city residents in its forthcoming performance dashboard.

JACKSON’S DATA JOURNEY

The City of Jackson’s What Works Cities engagement began with a strong public commitment from Mayor Yarber to govern using data during his 2015 State of the City Address. Mayor Yarber said:

Our commitment to make City processes seamless and effective are paramount to us building a City system that is centered on data-driven decision making. If we are to fix the system in which we function, we must understand, adapt, and be willing to admit our flaws. Innovation will help us ensure that the growth and future development of our city is inevitable.

GovEx began by working with city leaders to update each department’s Responsibility Matrix. These matrices, developed collaboratively by departmental leaders and Mayor Yarber, encompassed the department’s goals and strategies. GovEx helped the City refine its current matrices by including specific targets and timelines for each departmental goal.

The City of Jackson held its first performance analytics meeting on November 18, 2015. The Mayor’s team coined the program JackStat, and directors from all city departments were in attendance. Deputy Chief Hightower from the Jackson Police Department (JPD) presented on public safety and the City’s campaign against blight. The department had an opportunity to highlight its successes and speak frankly about its challenges.

One of the City of Jackson’s goals is to reduce the number of blighted properties. Vacant properties deter businesses from making investments in the community, attract crime, and reduce the property values of nearby occupied houses. Before Mayor Yarber entered office, a cumbersome, inefficient process was in place to remove blighted properties. According to Jackson Free Press:

…[The] process to clean [the blighted properties] would be caught up in a nearly endless cycle of snail-mail letters, empty threats from the city, and legal tangles that can take months and even years to resolve. [1]

After observing that the Planning and Development Department was only able to take action on fewer than five properties in the previous year, Mayor Yarber transferred responsibility to the police. The newly created Community Improvement Unit within the JPD now manages the elimination of overgrown properties, abandoned vehicles, or dilapidated and permanently damaged structures.

In addition to making the Police Department responsible for blight, Jackson updated the system used to address complaints. Contractors with a desire to work with the city to clean up or demolish rundown houses and mismanaged properties were now required to be pre-approved by the city. This change reduced the number of unqualified firms receiving contracts from the city.
During the JackStat meeting, the JPD announced that the City of Jackson has already seen positive results from its efforts in blight reduction. Within seven months, over 200 lots were designated as “menaces to public health, safety, and welfare.” As a result of the enhanced enforcement measures, 107 vacant houses were demolished by September 2015.[2]

Although the first JackStat meeting focused on the JPD’s work, Mayor Yarber stressed that some of the challenges JPD addressed are similar to those faced by all of the city departments. Meeting participants spoke at length about data quality and the backlog of 311 requests, which the GovEx team learned about through previous conversations with Jackson’s 311 director, Andy Boone. When street addresses are not entered into the system properly, it is difficult to identify duplicate requests. One of the follow-up items from the meeting is to develop guidelines to improve the quality of 311 requests recorded by city staff members.

Mayor Yarber and his team felt the initial meeting with GovEx was a success. They commented that the discussion demonstrated how the mayor wants to conduct business in the future, and laid a solid foundation for advancing the city’s performance analytics practice. The city’s Office of Performance and Innovation surveyed participants after the meeting. Overall the response was positive, with 57.1% of participants indicating the meeting was “Very useful,” and 42.9% reporting it was “Somewhat useful.”

The City of Jackson developed a plan to celebrate the achievements of departments that reach their goals. Monthly, departments will be recognized during JackStat meetings and through social media. The City of Jackson will also work with Socrata to launch a performance dashboard. In the meantime, they will publish progress reports online.

IMPACT

The City of Jackson continues to hold biweekly JackStat meetings. These meetings have become a powerful venue for information sharing. For example, during the first JackStat meeting, JPD reported that the City saved over $525,792 in FY 2015 by property owners voluntarily cleaning up their properties after receiving a letter from the department. This information was not previously shared with department leadership. In the first three months of FY 2016,the City saved an additional $101,469. This information was not previously shared with department leadership. The mayor’s administration and Finance will work to improve tracking of the cost-savings and determine the impact it will have on the budget.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Executive leadership matters. Throughout the engagement with What Works Cities, Mayor Yarber’s support was unwavering. The mayor’s support removed roadblocks and ensured key internal stakeholders devoted their attention to the project. It also allowed departments to prioritize the necessary tasks that needed to be completed before the first JackStat meetings.
  • Transform a current meeting into a ‘Stat’ meeting. Prior to the engagement with GovEx, department leaders met with Mayor Yarber and his team each week to provide updates on activities. The Office of Performance and Innovation transformed two of these weekly meetings into JackStat meetings. Now, city leaders meet biweekly to discuss each department’s responsibility matrix and progress towards its goals. Meeting participants focus on the work of one or two departments at a time, with the goal of spotlighting each department in two months.
  • Find a challenge that impacts all departments and unite around it. During the first JackStat meeting, city leaders discussed the backlog of 311 service requests. They determined that the backlog was partially due to requests that were improperly geocoded, which made it difficult to determine if residents were submitting multiple complaints for the same property. In addition, some departments were not properly closing out service requests once the request was fulfilled.The City of Jackson is now working to make changes to the way requests are recorded and received to improve the quality of 311 data. This includes disaggregating time measurement, standardizing request descriptions to create consistency over time, and validating address fields. The Director of Jackson’s Service Center is developing a manual to help city staff properly enter services requests. City leaders will spend time in each JackStat meeting reviewing the 311 data, a practice that was uncommon before the What Works Cities engagement.
  • Allow strong departments to model best practices. Through its COMSTAT program, the Jackson Police Department had a tradition of reviewing crime statistics and making operational decisions based on the trends it observed. The Department published those statistics and crime maps online, as well as the number of Internal Affairs case reports. Deputy Chief Hightower gave a presentation on the Police Department’s goals at the very first JackStat meeting. Deputy Chief Hightower demonstrated how the department reviews data in its COMSTAT meetings and discussed how it planned to leverage Jackson’s forthcoming open data portal and dashboard to improve its operations.

[1] City Rethinks Problem Properties – Jackson Free Press

[2] Jackson Spends $56K Cleaning Up Problem Properties – Jackson Free Press