Reactionary decisions can be costly. Taking a data-driven approach to planning and analysis can help managers make smart and insightful decisions based on relevant data.

These concepts were the focus of the morning NJMMA affiliate session at the 2021 NJLM Conference in Atlantic City. This panel discussion was moderated by Alan Zalkind, Dir., Rutgers Center for Government Svcs.; Executive Director, NJMMA, and featured Anthony Ferrera, Administrator of Hillsborough Township; President, NJMMA, Alex McDonald, Administrator of Millburn and Gregory C. Hart, Administrator of Franklin Lakes.

Data has become central to city hall, and a growing number of municipalities are now integrating it at every step of their decision-making processes. Local governments that use data also are able to identify the needs of residents more efficiently, and deploy policies where they can have the greatest impact.

Alex McDonald was able to explain how using data takes the “guess work” out of certain situations. He explained how people tend to push for the justification of “We need more people” and “We need more money” when things get tough. However, having data within each department to fall back on is key to identifying the true needs.

Setting up public dashboards has enabled governments to easily open their data and share it with citizens to build trust. These dashboards can be set up for every department within municipalities and they provide a window into the operations of municipal services and deliver easily read trend charts of key performance data. Trend charts can be set up for things like car break ins or tons of recycling collected. This information can help citizens be more informed and make their own evaluations on how their taxpayer dollars are being spent.

Anthony Ferrera was then able to explain some of the challenges that his own Township of Hillsborough had when implementing this type of data collection and how they overcame it. In Hillsborough, every department is responsible for a monthly dashboard. Each department head and their team is then charged with looking at what data is most important for that quarter.

“I encourage everyone to really spend the time and build a sub team that understands analytics who can then work with the rest of your staff to get you to where you want to be,” said Ferrera.

Gregory Hart explained that Franklin Lakes uses a centralized excel based database and they have found that a specialized software is not necessarily needed to track data in an organized manner.

He also reiterated that these programs are a work in progress and need to be developed over time. Municipalities are not going to be able to have all the answers on day one and they will need to work together to find best practices.