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Like many jurisdictions, the City of San Rafael has been tracking metrics for years, but officials say the information is now easier to understand and act upon.
Colin Wood is the managing editor of StateScoop. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. Before that, he taught Engl...
To track unwelcome elements like open-space fires and illicit massage parlors, the City of San Rafael, California, is using a new performance management tool designed to replace traditional methods that one official called "next to useless."
Rebecca Woodbury, a senior management analyst with San Rafael, told StateScoop the city is using Performance Measures, a new tool from OpenGov that is providing senior management with visualizations that make it much easier to understand what's happening and make decisions.
San Rafael was one of about a dozen government customers in California, Maryland, New Mexico and Ohio to beta test the tool during the past two months. OpenGov announced in a wide launch Tuesday. Customers are using the tool to move data from spreadsheets and PDFs into a platform designed to provide decision makers with a clearer understanding of how their agencies are meeting or not meeting goals.
"I've found in conversations with different directors what kinds of things they track," Woodbury said. "They'll oftentimes show me this report that some piece of software they use created and I've found oftentimes that these reports are really challenging to understand, to run, they're not visualizing the information in a very useful way. They can really be, frankly, next to useless. Oftentimes we think we're tracking things, but is the way we're tracking them actually helping us make better decisions?"
Since 2014, Woodbury has been gathering confusing data from city departments and compiling it into spreadsheets and PDF reports for the mayor and city council, she said. That process has been time-consuming and not operationally sustainable. These new tools are making the city's progress much easier to understand, she said, and providing officials a chance to share their data through a shared platform.
The tracking began when Mayor Gary Phillips requested an internal dashboard to monitor about 10 local issues that he was concerned about. In some ways, that performance tracking has been successful, Woodbury said, because the data prompted several new measures.
"One of my favorites, because it was really cute, was we got a heard of goats to help with some fire prevention in a lot of the open-space areas," she said.
Now, Woodbury is encouraging officials in other departments and agencies, like the fire department and police department, to begin using the OpenGov platform themselves, so they can begin building a central repository for performance management data. The hardest part of using the new system, she said, is collecting the data from departments and reformatting it — reading and interpreting the reports is easy.
"The big lofty goal is I want our organization and our decision makers to be able to have the tools they need to make better decisions and oftentimes a big piece of that is good data and data visualized in a way that makes sense and is easy to understand," Woodbury said.
Along with a handful of other goals, the city hopes to reduce the number of "illicit massage establishments" and the number of open-space fires, which officials have connected, through the performance management system, to the presence of homeless encampments.
Collecting data may be time-consuming, Woodbury said, but by starting small, the municipal government has already begun providing leaders with an accurate representation of how the city is functioning.
"You can spin a lot of wheels and waste a lot of time just running around after data for the sake of data," she said, "And in any jurisdiction that has resource constraints, you really need to use your time wisely and figure out what really matters."
OpenGov's Jonathan Brandon told StateScoop that each government organization falls on a continuum somewhere between basic tracking of operational data and "full-blown performance management," and that the new tool caters to all governments, wherever they may fall on that spectrum.
"Initially we built a dashboard product and quickly realized that this is an opportunity to address a much bigger problem, which is not just about providing a generic dashboard to governments, but to bring all this operational and financial data together in a way that would make it easier for them to make decisions and also start to track performance and progress toward goals that pretty much every government sets to some degree," said.
The market is full of performance management tools, including those offered by Socrata, OpenGov's chief competitor. During OpenGov's research, Brandon said, it discovered performance management tools often go unused because they're too difficult to configure or to change once they've been set up.
The thing that sets this tool apart, Brandon said, is how easy it is to use.