Toward Being a Best Managed City: Austin Launches a Dynamic Online Sustainability Dashboard

ARTICLE | Nov 8, 2016

Austin has a long-standing reputation as a leading green city, both nationally and internationally. But how do we know it’s true? While numerous policies and programs have been created to support sustainability, how are we actually performing as a city?

In 2010, then-City Manager Marc Ott established Austin’s first Office of Sustainability; a key function of the newly formed office was to monitor and report on sustainability-related projects, programs and initiatives underway in the City of Austin. In August of 2016, the Office of Sustainability’s second annual report on sustainability performance for municipal operations was released, and in October the Office was proud to announce the launch of a Sustainability Dashboard for Austin, which includes community-wide data as well as measures on municipal program performance. The Sustainability Dashboard accomplishes three key organizational objectives:

1. Advance transparency to the public to promote trust as well as civic engagement and participation in making Austin more sustainable.

2. Provide quantifiable metrics to track performance toward meeting major sustainability goals for municipal operations and the community as a whole. These metrics provide policy makers and city management with better information to make decisions in relation to those goals.

3. Report consistent data that can be tracked over time, so that trends and opportunities for improvement in programs and initiatives can be identified.

Marc Ott’s commitment to maximizing transparency was critical to the success of this project. Ott pushed for the creation of an Open Data Portal for Austin, which launched in January 2012. With hundreds of thousands of views, over 300 data sets, and dozens of apps utilizing the data, citizens and civic technology groups can use the Open Data Portal as a new way to interact with local government. The Open Data Portal provided the platform to host sustainability-related data, and new data visualization formats available from Socrata allowed the opportunity to test user-friendly ways to share these metrics with the public. Our office used Socrata’s Open Performance and Perspectives tools to create Austin’s Sustainability Dashboard.

Another critical component of this successful dashboard project was on-going, sustained leadership from those at the top of the organizational hierarchy at the City of Austin. Chief Sustainability Officer, Lucia Athens, facilitated the necessary dialogue with City department directors to ensure that resources were available to collect and report on data related to over 40 indicators of sustainability. This complex project required collaboration with over 10 departments throughout the organization.  Department directors were instrumental in ensuring that staff provided accurate data – even when it indicated that the city didn’t meet goals or targets for the year. And with sincere engagement and clear direction from Ott, city leaders were encouraged to address areas that were not meeting targets with new actions for improvement. The mission and values that City Manager Ott set as priorities for the City of Austin to be “best managed” resulted in an ethos of transparency, continuous improvement, and the dedication to make measurable progress toward the city’s sustainability goals.

Both city staff and elected officials continuously seek increased engagement with residents about where to focus efforts related to community values and city investments. Greater transparency about where we stand in relation to our sustainability goals helps to create a higher level of trust with policy-makers and city staff, which in turn facilitates more open and productive conversations about how to improve – both inside and outside the city organization.  With this increased access to relevant and timely information, and higher levels of trust and engagement with the community, city managers and City Council members can make more informed decisions.

And if transparency, enhanced community engagement, and more informed decisions are not enough to convince your city to create an indicator dashboard, there was another benefit that Austin gained through the process of developing the Sustainability Dashboard. The cross-departmental collaboration and communication required to achieve consistent and accurate data reporting on an on-going basis built strong working relationships and a better understanding of the challenges faced by different departments. Creating a performance dashboard is a real-world method for ‘breaking down silos’ in government that can be replicated anywhere. Going through the process encourages staff throughout the organization to think more deeply about how their work connects to larger organizational and community goals.

Any city can start tracking and reporting on sustainability-related or more general measures and indicators. Begin with identifying the data that best demonstrates how the organization is meeting key goals and priorities. What are the outputs your organization tracks now? Which metrics are truly reflective of your organization’s or community’s performance? What are the outcomes that are required to be successful?

Make certain that city management and department directors are engaged early in the process to achieve buy-in and ensure that all data is collected regularly. Once a process is created for data collection, reporting outcomes can be as simple as posting metrics to a city webpage. Online tools, like the ones offered by Socrata, do enable more visual means to communicate data to the general public but they are not a prerequisite to success.

Austin Goals Achieved

So how green is Austin, Texas? We’ve met our targets in six out of ten key municipal operations indicator areas, and we see positive trends for dozens of community-wide indicators. While there’s still work to be done, we now have a better understanding of where to focus our efforts and we are making progress – and we’re sharing all of that information with the entire Austin community.

How does Austin compare with other cities? With more cities launching their own dashboard efforts, hopefully we’ll know that answer soon.

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