The Benefits of Executive Buy-In

January 30, 2014 12:56 pm PST | Effective Governing

By Bridget Quigg


The most successful open data programs in the world share a common advantage: executive buy-in. The full commitment and support of a leader brings three specific advantages to any open data effort: vision, resources, and advocacy. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Maryland Governor Martin O’Mallley, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have exemplified strong leadership in all of these areas. We’ll highlight a few of them here.


An open data program not only serves every citizen, it requires participation from nearly every department in a government organization. In large municipalities, getting every department involved in a new effort can be a challenging task. Ideally, someone at the top of the organization will encourage involvement by offering a clear vision before any resources are spent. This vision answers the question “Why does this matter?”

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley typifies the leader with a passion for getting data into government decisions and inspiring others to do so on a massive scale. Inspired by the use of data in New York City in the early 1990’s to reduce crime via its CompStat program, O’Malley started a similar effort called CitiStat during his term as mayor of Baltimore. Crime was one of the central issues he used data to review. He worked hard to enact this new approach and his administration’s success was remarkable. Violent crime dropped nearly 40 percent during his tenure.

O’Malley went on to become governor of Maryland, starting its StateStat program which, according to his “State of the State” speech after two terms in office, helped Maryland cut spending by $9.1 billion and maintain a Triple-A bond rating during the eight years of his governorship. In his this final address, O’Malley again expressed his vision and passion for applying data to decisions by saying, “Setting goals. Measuring success. Hitting deadlines. Today in Maryland, you can go online right now, and see the 16 strategic goals we have set for our State’s progress. Progress requires accountability.”

O’Malley began his term as governor with a commitment to data and ended it with the same.


Each government organization is trusted with taxpayer funds to complete its mission, whether it’s protecting endangered species or creating public school curriculum. Resources like time, money, and staff hours are limited, but taxpayer’s expectations are high. Because of the pressure to meet so many needs, the departments must have permission to prioritize certain efforts over others, such as contributing data to an open data program and using data to measure their own progress.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made a number of decisions that have given his City’s staff this permission to focus their energy and resources on creating a successful open data initiative. First, he hired Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein to curate the city’s data collection and analysis. He then signed an executive order mandating that City departments share their data on the City’s open data portal. He also encouraged city staffers to spend time with Chicago’s growing civic hacker community. Chicago’s Director of Analytics Tom Schenk regularly attends civic hack nights in Chicago to talk to local developers and activists about the data and tools they need to create new apps and find solutions to city issues.

What have been the results? Besides an open data portal that hosts nearly 1,000 datasets and visualizations, some datasets with more than 1 million rows, the Chicago hacking community is one of the largest and most productive in the world. Simply look at their “Digital Chicago” website where you’ll find listings of resources for developers, a blog for developers, and an impressive list of civic apps addressing everything from public health to transportation. The site is up-to-date and full of useful information because Chicago’s team has been given executive support to make it a priority.


Once an open data program is established, the larger community must not only be educated about what is offers, but inspired to push the limits of what it can do.

During his tenure, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg inspired citizens, including less likely contributors like writers, journalists, and designers, to work with the data on the City’s portal. He wanted to ignite new businesses and have everyone discover ways to make life in New York better. Besides hiring a Chief Digital Officer and helping to create a “Digital Roadmap” for New York, Bloomberg and his team created one of the biggest civic hacking competitions in the world, New York City “BigApps.”

This event hosts some of the largest numbers of participants, from the widest variety of fields, to earn the biggest prizes in open data innovation thus far. The grand prize winning team earns $35,000, plus a demo slot at New York Tech Meetup, an interview for the Code for America Accelerator program, and tickets to the Code for America Summit.

Not only are the prizes significant, the website for the event serves as an inspiring community hub, where teams share their ideas and reach out to recruit fellow citizens with special skills sets, such as musicians or scientists. New York City’s BigApps has created a buzz among the most tech-savvy, innovative, and passionate residents of New York and helps the City take advantage of a valuable resource, its citizens.

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