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Urban Institute President Urges Expansion of “Open Data” Era in D.C.

dcogcadmin | January 23, 2015 | Last modified: September 8, 2019

Adding her voice to the local chorus for more — and more open — data, Sarah Rosen Wartell contributed a Post op-ed January 16 calling on D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to “create an information culture.”

A veteran of the Clinton White House, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, and the Center for American Progress, she mentioned housing, education and economic development as areas where ever more analysis could help with the tough decisions ahead.

Her list of action steps reinforced other recent calls such as the Open Government Coalition’s Action Plan for the new administration and Council —  fully cataloguing what data we have and doing forward-looking open data planning, setting direction and providing incentives fior agencies and staff to take the work seriously, and to assure the best exploitation of data, greater links with academics, federal agencies and with nearby jurisdictions.  

She joined also in the call for the Council to not leave open data to the uncertainties of executive action, and instead to see to it that this 21st century imperative “should be cemented in legislation,” creating a “permanent open data infrasturcuture to support policymaking across all aspects of city government.”

Perhaps she has seen the remarkable work in recent years in the District of civic hackers and others, creating useful applications of city data. One of her steps included a call  to “engage advocates and community residents around the collection and understanding of information.” 

The article includes a brief reference to an assigmment from the new mayor to a staff member to “lead CapStat, a data-driven performance management system.”  

Before this throwback goes too far in a new incarnation, the Urban Institute researchers could contribute a review of the literature of evauations of this management fad as tried here and elsewhere to see if there’s any reason for enthusiasm. The antithesis of today’s open data movement, this is managed data with a vengeance. 

Far from new even here, CapStat can be glimpsed in dusty archives from the first year of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration in 2007-08. (Such schemes started years earlier, for example, under Bill Bratton as head of New York’s police department in the 1990s, also as part of Mayor Martin O’Malley’s term beginning in 2000 in the City of Baltimore and in the government in England of Tony Blair.)  

The Post wrote early in 2011 of the likely end of the process in the District government as Mayor Vincent Gray assumed office, summarizing the rocky history of a “fairly rigid process of goal-setting and goal-meeting and goal-revising, whose centeripece were high-pressure meetings” of top staff and the mayor. 

Press and researchers have looked closely at the ill effects of directing massive attention to selected indicators with high-stakes consequences.  Leaders and staff stop thinking about the work and instead devote major energy to making their numbers look good.

As social sciemtist Donald T. Campbell warned in an adage now known as “Campbell’s Law,” “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressure and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”