A Future Fueled by Data: Virginia Beach
Positioned at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach is home to nearly half a million residents. Miles upon miles of pristine beachfront — along with museums, wineries, parks, golf courses, and other vacation-friendly options — make the mid-sized city an attractive home and tourist destination. This idyllic atmosphere does not occur by chance: Virginia Beach carefully allocates its $1.9 billion operating budget to support services ranging from waste disposal to beach maintenance to a responsive 311 system. And like any coastal city, Virginia Beach must prepare for the unpredictable, developing resiliency plans and maintaining infrastructure to handle potential storms and flooding.
The city operates under a Council-Manager form of government. The 11-member city council is the city's legislative body; three council members and the mayor serve at large. The city manager is appointed by the council and acts as chief executive officer. In recent years, the city received high marks from residents: in a 2015 survey, 94 percent of respondents were satisfied with the city’s services. Eighty percent of survey respondents felt they received good value for their tax dollars.
For years, Catheryn Whitesell led the city’s Budget and Management Services and recalls early efforts like posting the city’s budget online in a PDF. As technology has evolved, the city has adapted. Today, Whitesell serves as the Director of the Strategy, Transparency, Innovation and Resiliency (STIR) Office. She’s responsible for leveraging data to help the city be successful day-to-day, as well as achieve its long-term goals.
Setting a Vision and Measuring Effort
In 2011, Virginia Beach’s mayor appointed a talented and diverse 13-member citizen group to look at current trends and develop a future for Virginia Beach. After 16 months of work, the committee released a 36-page report, Envision Virginia Beach 2040. The report lays out “bold steps” to make the vision a reality and highlights elements that are vital to achieve the desired future: a connected, learning, and diverse community, a unique environment, active lifestyles, and a thriving economy. The report is inspiring, but only with data can the city track their efforts along the way. The city launched an Open Performance site to enable city council members, citizens, and media to track progress toward these key elements.
The Open Performance site provides context around goals and tracks key metrics.
“We always tried to be open with the budget,” says Whitesell. In the early 2000s, Virginia Beach posted top-level budget PDFs online, but providing detailed information for every line item in the city’s budget was impossible. Prior to the launch of the open budget site in 2015, transaction-level financial information was locked away, with only 11 copies of the line-item budget printed each year, reserved for accountants in the finance department. The budget information that was more widely distributed focused on large initiatives, such as public safety spending, not paperclip purchases.
The open budget site makes the massive amount of data understandable. It’s easy for Virginia Beach employees and residents to explore the line-item budget details that they care about, no matter how large or small.
“There are thousands and thousands of choices that get made putting together a $1.9 billion budget,” says Whitesell. “We’ve gained a better understanding of the complexities of our operating budget, and the details behind big program elements.”
The response to the open budget launch was enthusiastic: city council members were thrilled, legislators called to inquire how similar efforts could be enacted elsewhere, and media coverage was positive. Whitesell believes sharing at a granular level provides essential insight for residents. “It’s the citizens’ money, not ours, so we want them to see that we’re good stewards of that money.”
Department Data Sharing
Establishing an open budget site led to benefits beyond educating residents — the city believes without this groundwork, they would not have been selected in October 2016 as a What Works City. As a participant in this Bloomberg Philanthropies-backed initiative, Virginia Beach put in place policies to help the city identify and publish datasets, establish data standards, and create a Data Board and Work Group to manage these efforts. With the launch of OpenVB Data, the city shared 14 datasets, drawn from the departments that volunteered to share high value information, including the Virginia Beach Police Department, Health Department, Parks and Recreation, and the FOIA Office. Datasets on public employee salaries, restaurant inspection results, and police incidents are consistently popular amongst Virginia Beach residents.
Sharing data will likely reduce FOIA requests, and the city looks forward to the operational benefits. “We’ll be able to push for efficiencies, cost savings, and better service,” Whitesell says. Virginia Beach’s processes will improve, and missing pieces in existing systems will be revealed.
To help in this effort, 15 city employees are participating in an Innovation Academy, an online course run by the Alliance for Innovation. As part of the program, the participants develop an innovative project for the city, and present it to city leadership. Whitesell hopes this program, along with exposure to data, will encourage city employees to think about data in daring ways. Engaging with data will increase confidence in decisions, and help employees see potential in information that was previously hidden away in obscure reports. “We want to help the departments use data and visualization tools to try to improve their own processes — look for where the data is telling them they may have a problem or an opportunity, and then how they can use it to create a management understanding of the data that’s been hiding in the bowels of all these major systems."
Establishing the STIR Office
Virginia Beach City Manager Dave Hansen created the Strategy, Transparency, Innovation and Resiliency (STIR) Office to “create a culture where our future decisions are formulated by leveraging the use of data, strategic planning, and innovation principles that result in both effectiveness and transparency.” The 2040 Report establishes bold priorities for the city’s future, and the STIR Office will help the city achieve the vibrant vision laid out in the report.
Data fuels the STIR Office’s goals. It allows the city council to make strategic, data-backed decisions, and to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and initiatives, while measuring the city’s progress toward the 2040 Vision.
A Future Guided By Data
Virginia Beach's 2040 Vision and the new STIR Office provide a framework for the city to cultivate innovation, become more resilient, and make smart decisions. The three data-focused sites (Open Budget, Open Performance, and OpenVB) offer value to a variety of stakeholders. City employees benefit from internal data sharing and city council members gain unprecedented access to performance data which can be used to support economic development initiatives. Residents can now see how their tax dollars are being spent, measure the progress toward city goals, and gain access to frequently-requested data, without having to file paperwork with the city.
In the words of Mayor William D. Sessoms, Jr., “Virginia Beach is a stronger city when its citizens are well-informed and its leaders have access to the best data possible.”