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A Softer, Gentler Future for City Managers and the Data that Support Them

By Thomas I. Miller

Let’s turn back the clock to 1994. That’s only 20 years, or as biologists refer to it, a generation. I want to challenge you to remember your thoughts back then – in the context of what you and others were doing. Compare your younger thoughts to your ideas today and ask, what was I thinking and what have I learned?

It’s not as easy as it might seem and maybe not so elevating. It is simple for me to remember what was going on then. I just left my employ with local government to start a new survey research business. My daughters were in junior high school. The environment was not something many thought to protect. Bill had not met Monica. These questions made me struggle with understanding what twenty years can teach.

In October, these questions were posed to an intimate gathering of about 100 of America’s top city managers in West Hollywood, CA. It was the fourth annual “Big Ideas” conference put on by The Alliance for Innovation. As the group’s co-facilitator and as a researcher (and not a city manager), I had to think about my own answers to these questions before posing them to the others.

What was I thinking? What were they thinking? And what’s different about our thoughts today compared to a generation ago? Is there something instructive worth writing about?

Gentler Management

Curiously, for many of the managers, there was one big learning. Getting things done should not be the contact sport it seemed to be twenty years ago. Perhaps those more youthful endocrine glands pushed managers to believe they had to make things happen with more brute force than finesse. (Yes, many were men.) There was much less thought then than now about the connectivity of the world and the opportunities that networks of people can provide. There was less understanding about the importance of trusting relationships with colleagues. There was less consideration of the value of teams, partners and collaborators. There was less appreciation for the small connections that accumulate in the service of big changes and less understanding about the power of innovation (generally a team endeavor).

Softer Data

data 1

In a way, if their sentiments reflect those of many managers, management has relaxed over the last generation. As I thought more about the world of decision support services, like survey research and evaluation, that world has softened as well. A quick glance could make one believe that the realm of data – seemingly in something of its adolescence – remains a story of brute force. After all, big data implies hard facts because more numbers must make a stronger point.  Even 20 years ago, in my small data operation in a city government, I was convinced that more data were better. I had this notion, back then, that lots of solid data, like magic, could change the discourse. Press a batch of fresh numbers into the outstretched hand of a receptive local leader and “voila!” an empirically based decision appears. Of course, that kind of magic rarely happened.

Data with a Docent

Whether the answers lie in big data or small, those of us in the research business have learned that the numbers don’t speak for themselves. Sets of data require a savvy story teller who knows the territory, history and culture of the numbers and can put findings into context – a docent who explains the collection. What I didn’t realize 20 years ago but shrewd researchers now know, is that data don’t speak for themselves, or if they do, they speak in tongues or whispers. It is insight that supports data. Stories that are pithy and succinct beat data that is comprehensive and complex. It’s not the data about Congressional races that drives folks to Nate Silver’s blog, it’s the compelling analysis and interpretation that gives the numbers meaning.

A Docent with a Prod

A corollary to the understanding that data must be interpreted wisely and with compelling conclusions is that meaning isn’t everything. Understanding what data mean doesn’t make anything happen. All the data and all the wise interpretation is worth nothing if decision-makers do not act on what they learn. This was news to my mature self, looking back 20 years. So not only do researchers have to interpret data, but must help leaders act appropriately on findings. That may mean simply suggesting ways to move forward. However, I have found that “proof of concept” (i.e. demonstration that research is worth its resource investment) is linked to engaging examples of how data have been put to good use. My organization, National Research Center, Inc., is developing a guide to accompany every report of survey results (call it a prod) showing strategies that local governments have taken to use their findings.

A Prod that Evokes Emotion

One other insight from my self-imposed retrospective is that 20 years ago I was convinced that the smartest win. I’ve come to understand that passion trumps intelligence. This conclusion influences how we communicate the use of survey results to our clients. It’s not enough to provide data, give it meaning and encourage action. In our entreaties to act, we must appeal to the emotion of the clients even more than to their intellect. This means that the stories we tell somehow have to be evocative enough to leak into the limbic brain that controls the switches of feelings. People remember and are compelled by what they feel more than by what they know.

Seasoned city managers see clearly the value of communication and networks to help them persuade groups to reach conclusions that managers might once simply have decreed. In a parallel fashion, this decision support provider has also found that data cannot merely be inflicted on potential users. Data need more communication and a nudge to become understood and acted upon.

What insights have you gained over the last 20 years?


Thomas Miller, is president of National Research Center, Inc., a survey research and evaluation firm that helps local governments create communities that thrive. Learn more at www.n-r-c.com or contact the author directly at [email protected].

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