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Slow and Steady: 4 Foundational Steps for a Winning Project

There are so many inspiring stories of cities that are doing amazing things with their data. Many of us don’t always fully understand what it took to get there. In fact, the path that the city traveled may have been longer or included more setbacks than we at first assume. When GovEx advises cities on how to advance their use of data to improve service delivery, we explain that focusing on fundamentals is essential to keeping the project grounded; a way to get up to speed, without careening out of control, or worse, burning out.

Our recent work in Honolulu, Hawai’i is a good example of why the approach of establishing a solid foundation is incredibly beneficial. The city had a strong team that was eager to get on the map. The important question was, how can they shape a project to match the landscape of challenges and opportunities in Honolulu? Here are a few lessons from that project that may be of interest to other cities who are looking to take on a data governance project.

  • Find a focus area with both need, and opportunity. Initial discussions with Honolulu identified several possible focus areas, ranging from rail transportation to wastewater. But which was the best opportunity? All answers pointed to chronic homelessness. One main reason was that there were key staff members prepared and motivated to work on the project. In considering possible focus areas for a project in your city, consider whether there are factors, such as staff turnover or lack of political will, that would prevent the organization from committing and executing on the project. Those are things that must be addressed before a data governance project can begin.
  • Identify and empower champions who own the work. Working with Honolulu was a a great experience because the city’s team was motivated and organized. They had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and they kept pushing through the little snags that often come up in any project. Sometimes this motivation comes from a leadership mandate, and sometimes it comes from staff who are bought into the work and what it can accomplish. In Honolulu it was both.
  • Define a project based on knowledge of the organization’s current state, and take the next step. We often think of our work with cities as having multiple levels, from fundamental practices to advanced topics. These levels are sequential; a city must work on each one before moving on to the next. When we began conversations with Honolulu, leadership was eager to take on not just fundamental data management, but also performance management. On the one hand, this makes sense: performance management is an exciting leadership tool. However, as we learned more about the state of practice in the focus area, it became clear that we needed to concentrate on the fundamentals: creating relationships across departments, inventorying data systems, establishing a data governance group.
  • Find partners, and adapt the plan as circumstances change. During the course of our project, one of the team members transitioned to a different role. In some cases, this would have been a serious risk to the project. But in Honolulu, the team took it as an opportunity to find a new partner in the IT department, and to get the person more involved. With the new team member’s involvement came news of work underway in IT that parallelled some aspects of our project. Again, in some cases this could have been seen as duplicative, or as infringement on someone’s “turf.” That didn’t happen in Honolulu. Instead, the team joined forces with IT to learn about their work, and leveraged it to move forward with a broader base of support.

Working with over 100 cities in the past three years, GovEx well knows that for each city the path forward always looks a little different. Rightfully, circumstances and priorities drive the design of projects. But every city, every project can benefit from advance planning that considers the above tips. For Honolulu, following the practices described above meant that they were able to establish a data governance group, and create a data inventory, and to do those things in a way that has started a sustainable effort within the organization.


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