Top 4 Performance Measures for Mid-Size Cities

It is no secret that there is increasing public pressure for cities to promote local government efficiency and transparency, and to back up decisions with data. As city budgets continue to shrink, the pressure to be more efficient and purposeful with resources is ever mounting—and residents expect transparency around how city funds are used. Providing proof that positive changes emerge from money spent has never been more crucial.

Performance management, or the process of continually reviewing performance data to inform decision making, is critical not only for accountability and city progress, but for catching problems before they become too time consuming or costly to fix. Increasingly, cities are forming performance management departments to track performance metrics and guide the betterment of city governments. And while some of these metrics are highly specific to the needs of each city, many of them are used consistently from city to city.

For cities that are just starting to form performance management programs, a common question that comes up is, “What standard performance metrics should we be tracking?” To answer this question, mySidewalk studied the performance metrics used by 20 mid-size cities to uncover those measures repeatedly utilized in city performance evaluations, regardless of location or other city-specific nuances.

In the study, the following 10 categories surfaced as common measurements cities used when evaluating city performance. Here are the categories, ranked by popularity:

  1. Economic/financial status
  2. State of communities/neighborhoods 
  3. Public safety
  4. Infrastructure & transportation
  5. Government performance
  6. Environment/sustainability
  7. Culture/recreation/education
  8. Tied for 8th place: Business environment/growth and communication/customer service 
  9. Innovation/technology
  10. Code enforcement

Although cities may have different methods for reporting these metrics, the top 4 categories were used the most heavily, and thus emerged as metrics universally vital to tracking city progress. To illustrate each of the 4 metrics discussed below, we have included example maps from two of the mid-size cities studied, Cincinnati and Kansas City, for reference and added context.

Getting started: Top 4 performance measures for mid-size cities

Category 1: Economic/financial status

The economic and financial status of a city are tightly intertwined, and all cities with performance management departments measure these two indicators one way or another. These measurements are important because they often reveal the health of a city. For example, a city that is growing economically (think: developers are buying real estate to build on, and both new businesses and people are moving to the area) is generally doing well financially because there is a continual stream of revenue pouring into the local economy. When a city is doing well financially, it is able to afford city improvements, such as safer, more walkable streets, green public spaces, community gardens, aid programs for those in need, public health initiatives, etc.—all of which in turn attract more growth. It's a positive cycle that is beneficial for everyone. That's why tracking these metrics is vital to keeping a city on the right track. 

Although there are many measurements that could fall under the economic and financial status umbrella, two common metrics used among the 20 mid-size cities evaluated were number of building permits (which can be a proxy for economic growth), and revenue minus expenses.

Below is a map displaying locally-reported building permits for Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the mid-size cities studied. In the toolbar on the left are appraisal values for additional context. This interactive map is a good example of city data that would be valuable when evaluating performance or communicating progress to stakeholders.

Category 2: State of communities/neighborhoods

A city serves its citizens, so their satisfaction and quality of life are of the utmost importance. In fact, many city organization charts list citizen satisfaction above that of the mayor and the council. The state of communities and neighborhoods—and how citizens feel about the places in which they live—are key city health indicators. If communities are falling apart or citizens are unhappy, then people leave—leading to serious economic downturn that can be hard to recover from. 

Popular measures for evaluating the state of communities and neighborhoods were the number of housing vacancies and citizen satisfaction scores. Below is a map of Kansas City showing vacant housing units as well as citizen satisfaction scores for quality of life in the city. The map shows us that the dark green sections of the city experience high levels of housing vacancies—information that would be useful when evaluating neighborhood safety, or when deciding where to implement neighborhood improvement initiatives, such as blight reduction projects.

Category 3: Public safety

Public safety was a major point of interest for all cities evaluated. Public safety measures matter for the health and well-being of residents, but also for public perception and growth purposes: if an area is perceived as unsafe, it will generally have a difficult time attracting new businesses, homeowners, and other neighborhood investors. Additionally, according to a report by the LISC Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, public safety issues can make it "difficult to engage neighbors in visioning a positive future for a community when they are worn down by disorder and blight . . . or disillusioned by crime control efforts that have failed in the past." Staying on top of public safety—i.e., measuring it, tracking it, addressing it, and reporting progress to residents and stakeholders—is important not only for resident well-being, but for the city's economic health.

In evaluating the 20 mid-size cities, common metrics for measuring public safety levels emerged. Popular metrics included number of violent and nonviolent crimes; fire, EMS, and police response times; as well as citizen satisfaction data pertaining to resident feelings of safety—which essentially makes up the public perception piece mentioned above.

Below is a map of Kansas City—one of the mid-size cities studied—displaying resident feelings of safety alongside violent crime. Interestingly, the top right-hand corner tells us that these two variables are not correlated—meaning that how safe residents feel has nothing to do with violent crime in the city. This information is important for Kansas City leaders to know when communicating with stakeholders regarding city performance as it pertains to safety: If people are feeling unsafe, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there has been a spike in violent crime, or that law enforcement isn’t doing its job—perhaps those unsafe feelings are coming from other sources, such as economic insecurity factors. For more on this topic, check out this Strong Towns blog post on how jobs affect resident feelings of safety.

Category 4: Infrastructure & transportation

Most cities evaluate infrastructure and transportation performance in some capacity. City infrastructure can include roads, bridges, sewers, streetcars, water lines, the power grid, public buildings, and more, while transportation measures usually evaluate road, public transit, and car-related issues specifically. Infrastructure and transportation investment is considered a public good, as it can greatly affect resident quality of life—and the maintenance of such can attract private investment, pumping revenue into cities and fostering economic growth. 

Popular measurements for these indicators included pavement condition metrics (such as number of miles resurfaced), water and wastewater used per capita, and 311 data (such as streetlight outages or road requests). Below is a map of Cincinnati displaying 311 data for transportation-related incidents: this particular map shows 311 requests for vehicle and road issues. You can scroll around the map and find the census tracts that receive the most road and vehicle 311 requests, which would be useful in a performance management assessment of a city’s 311 services.

Putting it All Together: Performance Management for Your City

Performance tracking is quickly becoming the industry standard that city governments live by. Different cities operate at different points in the process—some are actively measuring and reporting on city performance, while others have simply set their performance goals and are still working on ways to effectively measure and report progress to stakeholders. Whatever stage your city is in, getting a performance management strategy off the ground is possible—and may not be as difficult as you think. 

The What Works Cities initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies program, is designed to help mid-size cities enhance their use of data and improve city services. Many cities looking to measure performance start by applying to be a part of the program.

“If it gets measured, it gets managed,” said Ed Foley, management and budget services for Olathe, Kansas, a mySidewalk customer and participant in What Works Cities. “You want to be continually tracking and improving rather than being complacent."

And while joining organizations like Bloomberg is a great start, what cities really need to measure performance is data that paints an accurate picture of city progress. The National League of Cities’ (NLC) recent performance management report declared that “A performance management system is only as strong as the data it is based upon.” This is why choosing the right measurements—and using accurate, sound data for those measurements—is critical to employing a successful performance management program.

mySidewalk, a city intelligence tool trusted by more than 150 organizations, makes it simple to collaborate across multiple departments, track performance metrics, and confidently share your city’s progress with stakeholders. Utilizing a tool like mySidewalk can be instrumental in deploying an effective performance management program.

How does your city manage and measure performance? Let us know in the comments below!

mySidewalk is a city intelligence tool that helps analysts track, analyze, and communicate progress on department and citywide goals. Our mission is to empower city leaders and the public with the most complete, clear, and real-time understanding of community data so they can improve and innovate together. You work hard for your data. What’s it doing for you?

Connect with our team here


Lauren French has worked in the tech world as a marketing and content professional for the past two years. She earned a master’s degree in public relations from Michigan State University and holds an English degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. When she’s not thinking about marketing and content creation, Lauren enjoys binge-watching Netflix shows and drinking as much coffee as possible. She is also over-the-top obsessed with her two dogs, Hutch and Marty.