Content Discussion History

The Formula for Perseverance: Honolulu's Story

When Managing Director of the City and County of Honolulu, Roy K. Amemiya, Jr., asked us to co-chair a What Works Cities (WWC) project on the use of data to better engage our citizens and improve city performance, we had little idea where the project would take us. As originally planned with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), we had expected a quick three-month proof of concept project based around housing and homelessness to jump start the data inventory process and begin work on a data governance charter for the city, and perhaps consider some form of visualization.

That was in January 2018. Fast-forward to February 2019, and we have in place an interim data governance charter, a data governance committee that meets bimonthly (with both civil service and appointed members), initial data inventories completed on eight departments with four more in process (23 department total), and the Honolulu Dashboard released on Feb. 19 with 13 initial dashboards.

On the one hand, the project expanded and morphed significantly, taking much more time than planned. On the other hand, we now have a promising system in place for data governance and the use of data to measure, communicate, and engage both city staff and the island community we serve. For cities and other governments thinking about starting their own data project here are four tips on how Honolulu persevered and transformed its data processes.

  1. First, we had the support and encouragement of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the managing director, who is directly under Mayor Caldwell. The mayor wanted to demonstrate the city’s progress and create a platform for increased public engagement. The managing director made it very clear from the get-go that as a city we need a much better handle on data, using it to communicate our progress and improve our performance on key initiatives critical to the mayor and our city. While many of us wanted to focus on “reporting” dashboards, they held us to a higher standard, pushing us to identify targets and measure performance to these targets. While somewhat challenging to accomplish, we think it demonstrated to the team that this project was being taken seriously, and it was worthy of the investment of our time.
  2. The data governance team was committed to the project and represented diverse interests in the city. We wanted to make sure we had a sustainable project, so the team included civil service professionals who fully bought into the work. For example, we had two career members of the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) and two career members of the city’s Department of Information Technology (DIT), selected by the chief of police and the department director, respectively. HPD offered to be the “guinea pig” for the first data inventory to be catalogued. Their extensive experience with data and sensitivity to security issues helped us address upfront some potential barriers to city-wide participation. They set an example for other departments to follow, and quite frankly, allayed some of the legitimate fears of leadership. As an aside, while we managed most meeting logistics – from agendas to draft documents – on the What Works Cities Google Drive, the data inventories are stored in the secured city system with limited access. Security, as you can imagine, is task number one.
  3. We asked for help, and we listened. As we shared with various departments we asked for their advice and guidance, e.g. what they would like to share with the public; what they thought was important; and which data sets they thought were reliable and accurate? We took the input to heart, and working with GovEx, modified everything from data inventory templates and the governance charter, to the dashboards themselves. Early on our DIT team members identified a consultant they were working with on data issues who could serve as a resource for the development of our data governance charter. DIT offered them up to the team and integrated us into their work, thereby increasing the team’s capacity around data governance and strengthening our products. Early on it was very helpful to have the guidance and resources of GovEx, and quite frankly, the rhythm of their weekly calls to help keep us on track. Once we got into the pattern, we maintained the discipline, e.g. weekly check-in calls for team leads.
  4. Finally, in typical island style, while we took our work seriously, we also had fun, laughed, and enjoyed snacks along the way. We kept our meetings to one hour, followed our agendas, had follow-up action items for each meeting, and utilized a co-chair model so that if one of the co-chairs was unavailable, progress was maintained – in other words both of us knew the entirety of the project, and could prod others, as well as the team, when we started to lag. We all learned a lot throughout the project, discovering hidden gems of progress and the talent in our city system. While most of us were self-acknowledged “nerds,” our appreciation for data and its importance for improving city performance for the benefit of the community certainly increased. And at most meetings, we of course enjoyed a few quality island treats from the office snack area.

To every city considering a concerted effort into data governance, management, and dashboards, we say “go for it!” and hope our four tips help. You will find motivated team members ready to assist – all you need to do is ask, and perhaps more importantly, show them that it really matters.

Our guest blog was co-written by Honolulu City Data Governance Committee co-chairs Megan Muramatsu and Marc Alexander.

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