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Government & City Dashboards: What You Need To Know
PUBLISHED Aug 13, 2019
City dashboards are a visual way to showcase your municipal measures and goal progress. Find out what you need to know about them.
For the average person, government dashboards may seem like attractive graphics the city occasionally publishes as a type of news item. But they are much more than that.
Community and municipal dashboards offer a framework for local governments to share the progress of their strategic plans with citizens and other stakeholders. The information presented includes both quantitative results and qualitative explanations, balancing hard numbers with helpful context. Cities use these dashboards as a platform—some would even say an advertisement—to demonstrate an awareness of and transparency around their progress, strengths, and weaknesses. Many cities also use community dashboards to position themselves as leaders, showcasing forward-thinking approaches and innovation.
A community dashboard shows citizens:
- How a municipality is performing.
- The municipality’s long-term goals.
- How the municipality is tracking and measuring those goals to ensure they are achieved.
Benefits Of Government Dashboards
Online community dashboards benefit both citizens and local governments in many ways, such as:
- Keeping a government accountable for serving its citizens. A city is responsible for making improvements to the community and publicizing its efforts around those improvements. Dashboards are an easy way for governments to reinforce an awareness of the community’s needs and prove their seriousness about making the changes citizens want to see.
- Instilling confidence in citizens that the government is focused on the right areas. City dashboards give municipalities the opportunity to brag about successes and explain strategies to fix problems. As part of that, citizens can see what the city is tracking and measuring, as well as how much progress is being made, which often provides helpful context and reasoning behind different initiatives.
- Allowing citizens to stay up to date with their government’s goals and projects. For example, a citizen can easily track a key initiative to see the percentage completed each quarter. This fosters transparency and keeps the lines of communication open between governments and the communities they serve.
How To Set Up Government Dashboards
Before you start building your dashboards, keep these general rules of thumb in mind:
- Your community dashboard should not include every goal and measure in your strategic plan! Dashboards should summarize only the most important measures and goals for your organization, providing context and analysis—but not an overwhelming amount of information.
- Keep your government dashboards organized and structured. In order for them to be helpful to citizens, dashboards must be easy to read and understand. Using the same format consistently, such as a city reporting template, will foster trust from your citizens and further aid their understanding.
- Don’t make your citizens do the work. When the public comes to a website, they want to learn and explore, but aren’t interested in combining data sets, creating charts, and trying to figure out what the data means. Give them meaningful charts and explain your progress in the context of your city or surrounding community. Provide helpful benchmarks as needed.
When you create your dashboards, you’ll need three levels of detail: city, division or department, and measure. Imagine a pyramid structure—the highest level is a summary of the city’s strategic priorities and overall performance, the middle level is divided into sublevels that summarize the projects and performance for each major city division, and the third level provides specifics for each individual measure.
Ideally, your community dashboards are interactive so citizens can click on the information within each level to learn more about the initiatives or performance metrics. Again, the goal is to present the information clearly and concisely to ensure it’s helpful to readers.
Examples of Government Dashboards
To give you an idea of how city dashboards can be executed in your city, below are two examples from ClearPoint clients.
For its “homepage,” or top-level summary, Arapahoe has chosen to showcase its three strategic priorities—Service First, Fiscal Responsibility, and Quality of Life—as well as the goals linked to these priorities. Citizens can then click into each goal, such as the Workforce Excellence goal, to view the status of the measures linked to it.
City Of Sugar Land
Sugar Land also presents another excellent example of how to create a city dashboard. Its summary page has scrolling images that tout its successes, while also listing its six strategic priorities.
Citizens can click into each priority to get details and data on different measures. For example, clicking on Safest City In America leads to this information:
And the city has gone even further to include links to historical data, such as fire response data integrated with ArcGIS maps.
In addition to these real-world examples, you can also learn about developing and leveraging city dashboards by hearing from someone who has done it before. Below is our interview with a former strategy coordinator who has exactly this experience.
Q&A: Chesterfield County City Dashboards
Lou O’Boyle, the Director of Engagement at Zelos, brings over 25 years of experience working with and for government and nonprofit organizations with a focus on organizational performance and results. Most recently, Lou served as the Strategy and Performance Coordinator for Chesterfield County, Virginia where she developed and implemented an organizational performance management framework that included a countywide strategic plan, division and department priorities, program-based budgets and a transparent measurement system.
We had the opportunity to speak with Lou about some of the challenges that localities face, how a city dashboard is able to fix those issues, and what you should keep in mind while creating your municipal dashboard.
1. What are some of the biggest challenges you see in city governments regarding strategic planning?
One of the biggest challenges is determining priorities. Simply put, city governments are big and expensive. Localities must focus on many different equally important areas and determine where money should be spent. This means that if a city makes something a priority—which, I might add, is exactly what strategic planning is supposed to do—then it is taking precedence over something else. Thus, you have to understand that you may upset some constituencies while making strategic decisions.
2. How can dashboards help solve these challenges?
I once told someone that dashboards are best when you’re clear on the outcomes. If we know what the outcomes are and we can clearly prioritize, then a city dashboard will provide us with the information we need to know. That being said, a dashboard won’t answer all of our questions. Allow me to expound.
Consider the icons on vehicle dashboards that light up and cause you to pull off the road and check the owner’s manual. This guide helps you determine whether you should call a tow truck or keep driving—but it doesn’t tell you how to solve the issue. The same is true for dashboards! They don’t necessarily tell you what to do, but they do give you the information you need to address problems honestly.
3. Are there some things that should be on every dashboard? What is most critical?
The most critical items on your municipal dashboard are the things most important to your city or community. A county administrator once said to me, “Everything is interesting if you’re interested.” Thus, the critical items on your government dashboard are the things your locality is interested in!
That being said, every municipality should have a strategic plan in place or have, at the very least, identified what goals are most important to them. So every dashboard should have items that relate to the outcomes defined on their strategic plan, such as these:
- Public safety: I would expect to see something about public safety on almost every single city dashboard. For example, two measures might look at crime rates and clearance rates—so you know how many crimes have been committed, but also how many have been taken care of.
- Economic development: I would also expect to see something around the net gain and net loss for the locality and the number of establishments operating in that city.
High-level measures will tell how well the municipality is delivering on the goal, but every scorecard should also give you the ability to drill down and gather additional measure insights. A measure alone doesn’t mean anything until a citizen can see how the municipality is assessing its success. For example, “heart attack survival rate” could be easily tied to emergency response times, and this is something citizens may be interested in.
4. Can dashboards become political? Can you prevent this from happening?
A city manager once said to me that in order to pull off a government dashboard in a political environment, you have to have both intestinal fortitude and political will. In my opinion, the best case scenario is when elected officials and city leaders all buy into the idea of a dashboard to either increase transparency or to use data in order to make better decisions. They understand that a dashboard will help manage the local data and tell a story, so they work together instead of being adversarial.
If you don’t have leadership buy-in, a dashboard can become very political and difficult. Some politicians are very concerned by “bad news,” and a dashboard is nothing if not truthful. A dear friend of mine who ran for Congress once said to me that politicians are elected on an agenda. That’s not a bad thing, but you have to remember that they’re joining a parade that’s already underway, and at times, this creates polarization.
5. How much information should be on a dashboard?
Another way to ask this question would be, “How much information can a municipality manage at one time?” Here are the rules of thumb I go by:
- If I’m working with a city government to develop a strategic plan at the goal level, I like to have 1-3 measures per goal—with the ability to drill down and have access to additional information.
- I always think that 5-6 outcome goals for a locality is a good number. But you have to determine how many outcomes you can manage—so if five is too many, do 3-4.
6. What are a few reasons dashboards may be unsuccessful or cause problems? Could those problems be prevented?
- There’s too much information. This is the biggest mistake I often see on a dashboard. Again, I think 5-6 goals with 1-3 measures per goal is sufficient.
- The information isn’t accessible. It’s important for the information to be accessible to the people who are putting the data into the dashboard. I’ve seen municipalities that create dashboards where the data is difficult to access. If it’s emailed in a PDF every three months, does the measure owner know what to do with it? Will they be able to access information that can influence these numbers?
- The data isn’t comparable. One of the characteristics of a good dashboard is that you have comparable data. You can compare your dashboard information to other dashboards or other data against the nation, the state, or just other localities that bump up against yours.
Now, are these issues preventable? Absolutely. One way to prevent these issues is by having easy access to the information in an environment that allows you to play around with the measures and get additional information, like reporting software.
Creating accountability is also important. While you may not be able to completely control the outcomes associated with your measures, you can certainly influence them. For example, if a measure is red (significantly off target), you may look at what services you could provide or what strategies you could deploy to influence better results. This is where the strategy and data come together.
Thank you once more to Lou O’Boyle for sharing her knowledge of government dashboards with us!