How Are We Doing?

Providing a long-range perspective to city planners

Photo courtesty of Bogota Como Vamos

three colored squaresHow Are We Doing?

Innovation

For nearly 20 years, Bogotá Como Vamos has been independently assessing the quality of life in the city through a combination of public opinion surveys and data analysis of indicators such as housing and transit. Its reports and events provide policymakers with a holistic and long-range view of resident satisfaction and of policy impacts, while also providing the public with access to robust, easy-to-understand information. This helps to create a common baseline understanding of the direction of the city. The model spread to 13 other cities in Colombia and has been replicated or referenced in other Latin American countries.

Democratic Challenge

Long-range planning is essential for solving big public problems. But regular competitive elections drive short-term thinking by political leaders. This well-known problem in political life is often compounded in big cities because of (a) the desire for innovation (of which this project is part) and (b) personalized, media-driven politics. New mayors often want and need to build their personal brand with ‘innovative’ new initiatives, setting aside the projects and commitments of predecessors regardless of their merit. This “stop-go” style of politics means that few innovations really stick, and they risk becoming vanity projects. Moreover, each jurisdiction and administration may change (for good reason) the way it collects and analyzes data about public problems, making it difficult to track progress on core indicators over time.

The city and its partners re-imagined the concept and practice of 'oversight.' Local authorities now understand that collective work [between government and civil society,] based on principles of independence and objectivity, could help government work more efficiently for society as a whole.

Piedad Restrepo, Director of Medellin Como Vamos 

How’d They Do It?   

In 1998, the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Corona Foundation and El Tiempo newspaper to launch Bogotá Como Vamos. (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana has since become a lead partner.) Their aim was to monitor progress against the city’s development plan by generating reliable and impartial quality-of-life data. Today, the organization’s output includes:

Quality of Life Report and Citizen Perception Survey

These annual reports crunch a trove of consistent, detailed, high-quality time series data. They marry subjective opinion polling (of 1,700 individuals answering 132 questions, disaggregated by sex and by district) with 200 ‘objective’ indicators such as crime statistics, housing data, etc. to provide a full picture of citizen satisfaction and development progress. Como Vamos makes information physically accessible (some of the data would not be published otherwise) as well as comprehensible for policymakers and the public.

Council, How Are We Doing? Report

This semi-annual evaluation of the Bogotá City Council tracks the activity of each legislator. The data is gathered by a network of paid and volunteer interns who attend council meetings.

Yo Voto, Yo Sumo (I Vote, I Contribute) civic-education website

Bogota is legally required to have participatory processes for developing development plans, but residents often don’t participate because of a lack of trust. Yo Voto, Yo Sumo offers a web portal for understanding city government and policy and for accessing points of entry.

Special Reports

These allow Bogotá Como Vamos to focus attention on particular populations or issues, including women, prisoners, and the homeless.

Bogotá Como Vamos also organizes forums and technical workshops and issues regular analysis and commentary, including ‘early warnings’ of emerging city problems.

How’s It Going?

Enabling data-driven policymaking

The Bogotá organization works with 20 district mayors to provide briefings on their local data and benchmark the local development plan. When and where local leadership has discretion, this allows them to shift resources, as in one district which identified a problem with infant mortality and revamped spending accordingly.

Building a family of cities (and open data)

Como Vamos sister organizations have sprung up in 13 Colombian cities to replicate Bogota’s model, and these organizations came together to form the Como Vamos Cities Network. Because their data is comparable, they pool and publish it at Ciudatos.com, Colombia’s first open-data portal.

Opening government-civil society collaboration

Medellín Como Vamos has focused on connecting residents’ needs and interests directly to government action plans, and its analyses and recommendations have been incorporated into a significant number of council candidates’ action plans and into the city’s strategic plan. “The city and its partners re-imagined the concept and practice of ‘oversight,’” Medellín Como Vamos Director Piedad Restrepo said. “Local authorities now understand that collective work [between government and civil society,] based on principles of independence and objectivity, could help government work more efficiently for society as a whole … We are convinced that working for a win/win partnership with the municipal government … is crucial.”

Building shared understanding and knowledge 

Como Vamos organizations have a reputation as credible non-partisan sources of reliable information and are regularly cited in news coverage and policy discussions. Having this neutral baseline of factual information can serve as a buffer against the balkanization and polarization that is tearing at so many political systems. It also enables residents to provide more informed input on specific policy questions.

Considerations  

Data does not speak for itself

Como Vamos organizations have never relied on publications or open data alone to spark discussions and influence policy. They are proactive about approaching policymakers and residents to discuss their research findings. And their partnerships with the business community, universities and media ensure that a broader audience, including key constituencies but also the general public, receive relevant, engaging stories drawn from the data.

Happiness is not the only value

Resident satisfaction can be a difficult thing to chase after. There may not be clear policy mechanisms for improving it, or boosting one group’s satisfaction may depress another’s. Some beneficial reforms may harm satisfaction—for instance, when cracking down on corruption brings more attention to the problem and causes trust in government to decline.

Innovation Point of Contact

Omar Oróstegui Restrepo
Director
Bogotá Como Vamos

Who Else Is Trying This

Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.

In the wake of massive unrest sparked by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, international-development specialists, scholars and a neighborhood data alliance banded together to develop quantitative targets for Baltimore’s development, in consultation with residents. This was part of the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, which piloted local implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) According to Citiscope, the Baltimore coalition’s recommendations “don’t focus on the mere presence of data: They’re also looking for ways to regularly push data into the centre of ongoing debates about urban development, to inform citizens, empower community groups and, ultimately, guide public policy and investments.”

Read More

USA Sustainable Cities Initiative
Somerville, Massachusetts, U.S.

In 2011, Somerville worked with a Harvard psychologist to develop a resident questionnaire as part of its city census. The survey questions sought to measure general well-being as well as satisfaction with local services. When broadcasting the survey to all residents didn’t yield a representative sample, the city took a more focused approach, selecting about 400 residents and nudging them until they answered the survey. (One successful tactic was to include a two-dollar bill in the mailing.) The city incorporates the happiness data into its Somerville Data Farm, and it has made policy changes in response to survey results. SomerStat Director Daniel Hadley has noted that while the survey’s impact is modest, it’s still a good return on investment. “It’s not as hard as it seems to do a good, simple survey of your residents,” Hadley told NextCity. “We did it all in-house and we did it all for under $4,000. It’s totally doable.”

San Francisco, California, U.S.

San Francisco’s City Performance team (within the City Services Auditor, or CSA) gives letter grades to city services based on resident-satisfaction data. The city picks a random sample of about 2,000 people to complete phone and online surveys, and the data is presented in maps, charts, infographics, and performance scorecards.

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The City of San Francisco