How Local Governments Can Put Community Data to Work


  • Polco
December 12, 2022 - (5 min read)

You have the data. Now, what’s next?

Today, most local governments aim to make data-driven decisions. New technology used with surveys makes data collection the easy part. What local governments choose to do with that information takes a little more effort.

It’s important to create and execute a plan. The next steps depend on goals. Governments may need to update a comprehensive plan, dive deeper into areas they want to improve upon, or make a policy decision. No matter the case, the following 6 Es of Action can guide government leaders as they move forward with data.

1. Envision

Envisioning goals and improvements are an important first step before making changes. Plus, engaging residents in establishing a vision yields better results when executing a plan.

Survey results, along with other community data, also illuminate successes and challenges. For instance, Pearland, Texas’s results from The National Community Survey® (The NCS®) showed a need for improved mobility. Knowing this, City officials prioritized transportation as a key goal in their strategic planning.

2. Engage

Engagement around data and plans is key to building transparency, understanding, and trust between a government, constituents, and partners.

Data also helps identify where different organizations or various departments within one local government can connect. Partnerships between local governments and the private sector, school districts, or resident advocacy groups can drastically improve community outcomes.

After analyzing the results from the NCS, Hamilton, Ohio, partnered with Marriott to finance a hotel that anchored the river walk. The partnership and following engagement strategies ultimately strengthened economic development and improved a popular area.

3. Educate

High-performing leaders also use data to educate constituents about issues and plans related to the community. These communications can correct resident misconceptions and even reduce polarization.

In the case of surveys, educate the public on the results. Share how the city is listening and how decision-makers are responding to resident input.

Based on resident feedback, Greeley, Colorado, wanted to improve its reputation as a vibrant place to live and work. The City Council launched a marketing and communications campaign to successfully change regional and resident perspectives about their city for the better.

4. Earmark

Data also reveals areas of improvement that require financial resources, so it’s a helpful budgeting tool.

In Pocatello, Idaho, residents made a case to the City Council to update a local animal shelter. Officials discovered through a survey that 85 percent of residents would support funds to improve the shelter. So, within a year, voters approved a $2.8 million bond issue to rebuild the facility.

5. Enact

Policy decisions work best when backed by evidence. Such policies are key for community success overall. Evidence-based decisions have infinite potential. They may modify land use zoning, improve recycling, add or remove regulatory requirements, and so much more.

In Boulder, Colorado, affordable housing is limited. Based on The NCS feedback, Boulder City Council approved an ordinance to permit accessory dwelling units (small additions to homes in residential neighborhoods where tenants are allowed to live). This decision made a positive impact on the local economy, as affordable workforce housing naturally lends to the business friendliness of a community.

6. Evaluate

Evaluating efforts helps leaders measure the impact of their decisions. Through this process, government officials will know if they are on the right track or need to adjust their plans.

Decatur, Georgia, regularly revisits old strategies and makes tweaks as needed. Each year the city analyzes the budget to see if it aligns with the strategic plan and resident priorities. They also publicly share completed actions on the city’s website. Last, they regularly seek community input and guidance by conducting The NCS every year.

These 6 Es of Action are the roadmap to implementing effective, data-backed policies. In this way, data can become the foundation for overall decision-making, performance measurement, and planning for your community’s future.

The Next Generation of Evidence-based Decision-making

Community surveying provides local governments with insight directly from their residents. But using multiple data streams will arm leaders with better information to execute the 6 Es of Action to their fullest potential.

For example, there is an abundance of public community data from authoritative sources like the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among many others. Most of this data goes unused. The sheer amount of information is too complicated to make sense of all together.

A new partnership and data network, Government Performance Action and Learning (GPAL) by Polco, puts all of that information in one place and breaks it down into quality-of-life scores, such as transportation and the economy. This allows governments to see where they stand compared to other communities easily. The data clearly signals where governments are succeeding and areas that need improvement. Cities that use GPAL with The NCS can see those results side by side.

Data-backed decisions and community engagement are a priority in local government. Using surveys and public data through GPAL gives organizations the highest quality information available—from researchers and residents. With better data, it’s easier to envision a plan, engage and educate the community, earmark dollars, enact policies, and evaluate progress.

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About the Author:

Jen Aceto is a Product Marketing Manager at Polco.